Ch. 2 investigation finds retail spending, few receipts among DeKalb commissioners

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:


DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - A Channel 2 Action News investigation found tens of thousands of your tax dollars spent on electronics, gift cards and who knows what else, by government officials with no oversight. 
"I think we are all tarred with the same brush and I regret that," said District 2 Commissioner Jeff Rader, whose spending was one of the lowest. "We owe it to the people that pay the taxes... to be able to tell them exactly how we spend that money."
But investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer found some DeKalb Commissioners can't do that, with sloppy accounting and minimal receipts. 
The top spenders on the county debit card were District 4 Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton and her aide Judy Brownlee. The pair spent more $75,583 on their purchasing cards since 2011. That's more than three times what Rader's office spent.          
"I'd be interested to know how they were able to spend that kind of money," said Rader.
So was Fleischer. But when she asked to see the receipts, 333 were missing. Those undocumented purchases totaled more than $45,681. 
"I didn't even know that we were supposed to keep receipts," said Sutton. "Because I thought we had a record every time you swiped the card."
That's not true, according to a 2011 audit, during which Sutton and District 1 Commissioner Elaine Boyer were both warned about their lack of receipts. 

Fleischer found Boyer is missing 484 since then.  

"At this point that's all I can do is say, ‘I'm sorry and it won't continue,’" said Boyer, who has vowed to keep better records.

Sutton had no recollection of a $130 speeding ticket paid with her county debit card.

Records show a speed camera in Washington, D.C., caught her while driving a rental car during a conference in January 2013.

"Well they must have put it on the card and I didn't know. I don't recall getting a ticket," said Sutton.

A representative from the company told Channel 2 that all tickets are sent to the driver for payment, and the card used in the rental car agreement is only billed if no response is received.  

"I'm distressed that we now are, as a group, appearing to be less than responsible with the public's purse," said Rader, who is critical of sloppy accounting and apparent abuses by some of his colleagues.   

"To not be able to provide documentation really undermines [the public's] confidence in our ability to manage their funds," said Rader.

Sutton agreed, "I think that we can do a better job record keeping." 

Records show Boyer and Sutton and their aides do lots of retail shopping, at stores like Target, Walmart, Office Depot and Best Buy. The other commissioners spent less than $5,000 at retail stores. Boyer spent $19,519. Sutton spent $24,264 in the same time frame.

Fleischer asked how she explains spending five times as much as other commissioners.             

"Because I do five times the work," she replied.

Rader disputes that, and worries the county doesn't even know it owns expensive items bought on the debit cards. 

"That would make it easier for things to walk away," said Rader.

Things like a $700 laptop, six printers, two shredders and two scanners all bought by Sutton staffers since 2011. They also purchased a 26-inch LED HDTV, which Fleischer did not see when she toured their offices. 

Sutton says she and her aide, Brownlee, have home offices outfitted with county purchases as well. 

"I trust Judy completely. She tells me what she's buying. I've never questioned her integrity," said Sutton.

In the few receipts they did provide, Brownlee bought 27 gift cards, worth nearly $1,100. Sutton says they were given away to volunteers at events and as employee rewards. 

"I don't see any justification for giving publicly funded gift cards to anybody," said Rader.

At an annual picnic, Sutton and Boyer gave lucky DeKalb County employees prizes bought with taxpayer dollars. There's no list of those either.

Together they had nearly $30,000 in retail spending for which they failed to keep receipts.

"The real question I think all of these matters leave in people's minds is, who's watching the store in DeKalb County?" said Rader. 

Especially after Boyer and her top aide paid back $18,036 in personal purchases they had laid out on their county debit cards. Boyer said she didn't realize that wasn't allowed.

"There was never any intent in my mind not to pay it back," said Boyer. "I am stopping what I'm doing and changing behavior." 

Rader says that doesn't make it right.

"I have asked for an investigation from the police department," said Rader. 

After agreeing to open a corruption case to examine purchasing card spending, DeKalb County Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander called Rader back to say he was told to stand down by District Attorney Robert James. Alexander said James wanted to investigate the case himself instead. 

Fleischer asked Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May if county officials were keeping track of the purchases made with the debit cards and he said they were not.

"I think we've clearly seen that we have to do better in terms of inventory controls," said May. "We don't have a clear picture on that."

May said the commissioners should all be purchasing big-ticket items, like electronics, through preselected county vendors, because there are better inventory controls and sometimes lower prices are negotiated in the contract. 

"That's what I think you've seen that we have not done," said May. "But that's what we will be fixing so that we know across the county of any electronic, any high-ticket item that we will have an inventory on it."

May introduced new spending rules for the purchasing cards last month, along with a rigorous training schedule for commissioners so they are clear on all policies. He plans to add a requirement that expensive purchases be reported to the county so they can be bar coded and tracked. 

DeKalb County lets its commissioners decide how they want to spend their own budgets. 
The purchasing card policy says it can only be used to buy goods and services related to county business, which is also subject to interpretation.

"The bottom line is that the people are taxpayers and they're holding us accountable and it's not our money," said Commissioner Larry Johnson, whose retail purchases were significantly lower than Sutton and Boyer.

Fleischer found Johnson was the commissioner who spent the most money making charitable donations out of his budget, more than three times that of any other commissioner. 

Records show Johnson donated $12,000 of taxpayer money from his budget to the Porter Sanford performing arts center in his district, which he said he feels is appropriate. 

"Because the taxpayers in my district have felt like we needed to support the arts," said Johnson. "If there's anything I can do to try and help young people and seniors to enjoy shows that a lot of them just can't afford, I want to try and do that."

His support also bought him a featured spot on the wall there as a platinum donor. 

"I would personally feel uncomfortable about that," said Commissioner Rader, who gave away more than $3,500 from his budget to places like the DeKalb History Center, DeKalb Library Foundation and the pedestrian group, PEDS. 

But he says commissioners should not get anything in return.

"I think the sort of litmus test is whether or not you're making a donation that tends to highlight yourself in the same way that it would be a campaign activity, or that provides you a special benefit," said Rader.

Records show the commissioners gave away a combined total of more than $20,000 since 2011.

Sutton used her county debit card to pay $240 for tickets to the Africa's Children's Fund gala, where she spent an additional $1,100 of taxpayer money bidding on a signed photo of President Barack Obama, which now hangs in her office.

"It belongs to the county," said Sutton, "I made a contribution out of my county budget and that was the gift they gave me."

She says when she leaves office, the photo will stay, or she'll buy it from the county.

Channel 2 Action News

Delivered To Your Inbox