Georgia — where even the crooks are broke

By Tom Baxter

There are some obvious parallels between the case of former DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, who resigned her office and pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme last week in federal court, and former Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, who was sentenced to federal prison along with her son a couple of years ago after pleading guilty to bribery in an FBI sting operation.

Both were respected local leaders whose reputations were based on years of service. Both were Republicans representing affluent neighborhoods. These are the stock details of mighty-have-fallen stories, however. The most striking parallel between these fallen public servants is that from all appearances, both were pretty hard up.

Lasseter had been financially devastated by the death of her husband and the loss of her state job. Boyer and her husband were also in tight straits, and have lost their home in a foreclosure, according to a recent report.  Things haven’t been going well, either, for former Gwinnett County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who last month got probation on a plea deal involving bribery charges.

Financial difficulties don’t absolve any of these officials for what were clear-cut cases of public corruption. But they do define the era in which these offenses took place.

Rutgers University published a poll  last week which said more people now believe the Great Recession was a permanent drag on the economy than did a few months after the official end of the recession at the end of 2009. This was interpreted as a sign of greater anxiety about the economy, despite its growth. It could also be read as a sign of slowly dawning realism.

The Great Recession had a much more lasting effect on some Americans than others, and many of those who flew the highest on soaring property values and ever-more-lucrative development schemes have had the hardest time crawling back. As we’ve noted before, this state’s political class was not immune to the impact.

When you look at the list of Boyer’s restaurant expenses compiled from public records by the AJC, it’s the cornbread and collard greens that catch your eye. On a long list, she has only four tabs higher than a hundred dollars, but a lot of country cooking. She initially defended the meal expenses as time spent with her constituents, but when you figure them week by week, it’s clear she also was quite literally on the feedbag. (If there is, after all, such a thing as a free lunch, it exists at the county level. A friend experienced with the finances of counties in three states once suggested “Your Tax Dollars At Leisure,” as the motto for one of them. )

This is not to say that there isn’t still a lot of the traditional, noblesse oblige type of dipping into the public till, of the sort WXIA has been having a field day with in its coverage of the spending habits of Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond.  But much of the stealing we’re seeing unearthed in the case of these county officials seem spurred by need as well as greed.

Give Boyer credit for being the most forthright of the several Metro officials caught with their hands in the till recently. She declared that she had “betrayed the people” and “abused my position of power” when she resigned last week. Given that U.S. Sally Yates’ office has been conducting a wide-ranging probe into DeKalb County government, these may be the warm-up notes for a long and incriminating aria.

Yates announced the investigation last week but it has been whispered about for some time. One part of the rumor was that the feds were waiting until after their work was done in DeKalb to focus on the governor’s office. That was being said months ago, and it seems much less likely this close to the election.

Still, the constant drumbeat of headlines about the ethical failings of public officials can’t be good for the candidate in the governor’s race who’s on the defensive about ethics. Nor, for that matter, is the news that those crooked officials have gone bankrupt and been foreclosed on.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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