Last week, DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton put out a press release that had me doing a double- and triple-take. In it, she asserts that an independent audit ordered by commissioners has cleared her of any wrongdoing in how she spent taxpayer dollars with a county Visa card.
An independent audit of the P-Card expenditures for DeKalb County Commissioners found Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton, who represents more than 130,000 DeKalb County Citizens in the Stone Mountain area, used her P-Card exclusively for county-related purchases.
So I took another look at the audit and found it makes no such sweeping conclusions. There wasn’t much digging into whether any commissioners’ spending of taxpayer dollars was “exclusively for county-related purchases.” Instead, the auditor, O.H. Plunkett & Co., primarily sought receipts and, when the purpose wasn’t clear, asked commissioners what they spent the money for.
Like Sutton’s $1,650 spent on 35 gift cards at Office Depot, Walmart and Staples, with little or no documentation explaining how the gift cards were used. Sutton’s top aide explained that they went to volunteers at various events, including the Ovarian Cancer Walk and Youth Empowerment Breakfast.
The auditors called attention to some odd things, such as the $130 speeding ticket Sutton billed to taxpayers, but didn’t delve into them. It also noted that Sutton spent nearly $6,000 on a private attorney to help her fend off WSB’s Richard Belcher. At the time, Belcher was hammering her with questions about travel spending and her use of consultants. But the audit doesn’t address whether that spending was appropriate.
The commission brought in the firm after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that ex-Commissioner Elaine Boyer ran up thousands of dollars in personal purchases on her county-issued Visa purchasing card, known as a P-card.
The AJC and WSB have also raised questions about Sutton’s spending. Our joint analysis found that Sutton blew her colleagues away in total P-card purchases, with her and her top aide putting $75,000 on their cards since 2011, followed by Boyer’s office with $58,000. When the AJC and WSB sought Sutton’s receipts, she couldn’t produce receipts for more than $45,000 in P-card spending. Among purchases we questioned were six printers, two shredders and two scanners within little over a three-year period, and office equipment Sutton and her top aide bought and took home.
Sutton’s news release would have us believe auditors cleared her of any potential abuses, now that she’s come up with more documentation decreasing her proportion of missing receipts from 75 percent to 31 percent.
She also plugs the virtue of P-cards, saying she’s actually saving the county money because “it costs the county more to process checks through the purchasing department than it does to have County employees use purchasing cards … so it’s misleading to say that I spend more than any other commissioners.”
Sutton’s press release also indicates she doesn’t completely understand what got Boyer in so much trouble. She wrote:
Commissioner Boyer resigned recently and pleaded guilty in Federal Court to defrauding DeKalb taxpayers of more than $90,000 via non-P Card transactions (checks).
Actually, about $15,000 of the sum Boyer admitted to commandeering for herself involved her P-card. That was the stuff the AJC first exposed – the airline tickets, the rental cars and the ski resort booking, among other things. The other $78,000 was through “non-P Card transactions,” checks she authorized to an evangelist posing as a legislative affairs consultant in a kickback scheme.
Sutton, like her collegues on the commission, still faces the scrutiny of an ongoing FBI investigation into office spending. And she has ethics complaints pending against her.
So questions about whether all spending was for “county-related purchases” have yet to be answered.