DeKalb ethics hotline attracts complaints both petty and severe


A year and a half ago, against a backdrop of rising corruption allegations, Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May launched a 24-hour hotline to receive confidential complaints about government misbehavior.

It was meant to make it easier for county employees to report unethical conduct by their bosses or co-workers.

But many of the calls that have come in have been more of the banal variety: rumors of office relationships, concerns about a moldy library, complaints of a paycheck error.

Sure, there have been a handful of serious issues raised, about bullying bosses or favoritism in hiring. Few, however, have reported the types of transgressions originally envisioned by county government leaders, such as theft, fraud or threatening behavior, according to investigation files obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

Zach Williams, the county’s chief operating officer, said that while employees haven’t often reported financial irregularities, the hotline has provided a window into employee frustrations and concerns.

“Sometimes it’s not solely eradicating misfeasance, malfeasance and gross negligence,” Williams said of the complaints. “If an employee takes the time to call in or email a concern, even if it doesn’t reach the level of an ethical violation, to them it’s serious, and to them it’s often interfering with their ability to get their jobs done.”

Through brochures and emails, DeKalb has sought to inform its 6,000 employees of the hotline’s existence, hoping to help restore trust in government operations.

The county disclosed case files of 21 completed investigations. Nine other cases haven’t been finished. Complaints to the hotline — which the county pays a company less than $8,000 a year to operate — can be lodged anonymously by phone or online.

A sampling of the cases:

     
  • A DeKalb police lieutenant allegedly exploited his position by driving luxury cars that had been seized by law enforcement, ordering officers to move his office furniture and watching ESPN while detectives waxed his car. An audit report concluded that, while the lieutenant didn’t violate county codes, “subordinates or other observers could easily consider his actions an abuse of authority.”
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  • A court employee was accused of showing favoritism by hiring fraternity brothers and sorority sisters who learned of job postings through the employee’s social media page. The county found the allegation to be true and forwarded the findings to the appropriate department head.
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  • An investigation found that an allegation of sexual harassment against a deputy director was unsubstantiated. The supervisor was accused of massaging his subordinate’s shoulders and touching women from behind, but all parties told the county that no romantic relationships existed or sexual harassment had taken place.
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A DeKalb civil grand jury reviewed the ethics hotline and listed several concerns in a September report. The grand jurors recommended that county leaders make public completed ethics hotline investigations, provide additional funding for investigations and compel departments to quickly provide documents to auditors. Williams said two additional employees are being hired to handle cases.

Though the grand jury report said completed reports were supposed to be published online, only four hotline cases were found posted on the county’s website. Those reports involved unsubstantiated allegations of favoritism in hiring for government tech jobs and a public works position, mold in the Gresham Library that was eventually treated, and the case involving the police lieutenant. The county charged the AJC $178.56 to disclose hundreds of pages of documents generated from the 21 completed investigations.

“I was troubled by a statement that reports were being provided to the public when they’re not,” said Mike Cooper, a resident commenting during a meeting of the DeKalb Audit Oversight Committee.

The county plans to place summaries of closed cases on the website. Audit Oversight Committee members said they will review the hotline process and evaluate how to proceed.


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