By Tom Baxter
It has been three years since they took down the water tower with the “Success Lives Here” sign that used to welcome interstate motorists to Gwinnett County, and since then the county has been losing an average of a commissioner a year to corruption charges.
Which is not to say that the pace might not pick up still more. Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, who resigned last week after pleading guilty to a bribery charge, is said to be cooperating with a federal investigation, along with her son John Fanning, a member of the county Zoning Board of Appeals, and her business accomplice, Carl “Skip” Cain. Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has been seen as bringing stability to the county since the 2010 resignations of former Chairman Charles Bannister and Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, but Lasseter’s resignation shocked her, she said.
“I’d hate to think that there is anything else left to find. But quite honestly if there is, it needs to be found and it needs to be dealt with. We can’t put this behind us until that happens,” Nash told WSB-TV.
In many ways, government corruption in Gwinnett seems like the classic boomtown story, of an area spreading too fast to contain all the ambition and greed that goes with growth. But what’s striking about the charges in this recent case is how small-time they are, compared to only a couple of years ago.
Other suburban counties have challenged the dominance of Metro Atlanta’s urban core, but none with the brashness exemplified by that water tower sign. Gwinnett grew faster than any Georgia county ever had, and it built bigger, from its county office complex to its water treatment plant. And so with its corruption. The land deals in which Kenerly and Bannister were allegedly mixed up involved millions, and the whispers were that this was small potatoes compared to some of the real action going on in the county.
Lasseter, on the other hand, got caught in a sting in which she took $36,500 to vote to rezone for the construction of a pawn shop which would then become a laundromat for drug money. In what appears to have been the trigger for this sting, Fanning and Cain got snookered by the feds into accepting a job as drug mules, transporting what they thought was a cocaine shipment from New York to Georgia.
That’s a long way down the ladder of corruption from a big land deal, and particularly unsettling in the case of a politician with Lasseter’s record.
“I could have understood this a few years back when the developers held sway. But all the developers have been taken out (by the downturn in the economy),” said Gwinnett Forum publisher Elliott Brack.
In many ways, however, this latest case reflects that downturn. Lasseter had a long career as mayor of Duluth and later commissioner, but she’d lost her state job after the departure of former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and is said to have had health problems.
“That’s how we get by,” her son allegedly told undercover agents, assuring them he’d have no problem with money laundering.
Success lives in Gwinnett County, but often it has only been passing through. Many of the newcomers who have transformed it from a majority-white county to a minority-majority county with some of the largest Hispanic, Asian and African communities in the region have never connected with the political process, leaving a lot of power to the relative few.
But Brack, who’s been interviewing candidates seeking his publication’s endorsement, says there are signs that’s changing, though less swiftly for Asians than Hispanics.
Only in Gwinnett County would you find a Republican of Kenyan origin named Hussein K. Dido running for the county school board. Dido will be the GOP’s candidate because the incumbent, Louise Radloff, switched parties earlier this year, saying she felt more comfortable with the Democratic Party’s support for public schools.
This was, in some circles, a long-awaited sign. Radloff reportedly was unhappy with a Republican-drawn school board map which short-changed her, but many Democrats have predicted that sooner or later the dramatic demographic shifts in Gwinnett would swing it back in their direction.
It may only be an accident of history that the local officials who’ve gotten in trouble over the past few years have Rs after their names instead of the Ds they would have had before the mid-1980s. But that won’t discourage Democrats from seeing these latest troubles as another hopeful sign.