Restoring public faith, young lives

Moderated by Rick Badie

Corruption claims beset DeKalb County government. Most of its elected officials are under investigation, and the suspended CEO faces a criminal trial. Residents demand reform. Today, the head of a DeKalb citizens group explains its call for the establishment of an anti-corruption unit to uproot malfeasance, while a nonprofit executive writes about rebuilding public trust in government. Our third column is about DeKalb, too — the district attorney’s Anti-Recidivism Court, a program for offenders 17 to 25 years old.

Form an anti-corruption unit

By Aja Marie Pascale

If you have not yet been appalled by stories of corruption in DeKalb County government, it would be worth your time to read just the findings in the report of the special purpose grand jury, convened in 2012 to look into how the county does business.

The jury, in its 2013 report, found criminal investigations were warranted for at least a dozen people, most of whom were county officials until recently. Grounds for investigations included bribery, bid-rigging, obstructing criminal investigations, perjury, theft, interference with government operations and plain old graft. The findings may be shocking, but the full report portrays a county government deep in the throes of a culture of corruption.

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis awaits trial on criminal corruption charges. The district attorney’s office is conducting its own investigation into corruption, based on the grand jury findings and recommendations. Federal authorities are looking into allegations of widespread misuse of county-issued P-cards and other illegal acts.

Citizens action groups, such as Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter and DeKalb Citizens for Good Government, demand changes.

DeKalb Citizens supports the establishment of an anti-corruption unit under Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander. This unit would have investigative responsibilities of any alleged illegal acts on the part of any county employee or elected official.

The DA’s traditional role in fighting corruption is well noted, but it’s also worth noting that this is an elected office, never far from politics. The police department is more removed from political needs. Further, an anti-corruption unit within the department would be an additional corruption-fighting effort. Such units exist in police departments in large U.S. cities, though they’re not exactly common.

Alexander has promised in no uncertain terms that any investigation can and will be taken to logical ends, with the assistance of the GBI and FBI, if necessary. That is strong stuff.

In the conclusion of its report, the special purpose grand jury states clearly the county government is deeply troubled, “providing too many opportunities for fraudulent influences” and fostering “a culture that is overly politicized and in which inappropriate business relationships are created.” It further asserts that “inept policies and procedures and an attitude of non-compliance” comprise “a strong thread throughout our investigation.”

Many DeKalb citizens support establishing a well-organized, steadfast, independent, anti-corruption unit within the police department. It is time to give this a try. It is time for interim CEO Lee May and the DeKalb Board of Commissioners to bring this into being.

Aja Marie Pascale is director of DeKalb Citizens for Good Government.

Make good government good politics

By Shelley H. Metzenbaum

As we celebrated Independence Day last weekend, Americans had a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, too many communities in Georgia and around the country will be hard-pressed to extend pride to their governments. Inquiries into ethical breaches by public officials — such as the investigation of suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis — dominate the news.

States and localities must respond by adopting best-management practices and control systems, not only to eliminate self-dealing but to promote excellence in government endeavors. Citizens must pressure public officials to make good government, good politics.

Nowhere is this more crucial than in Georgia, which in 2012 ranked 50th in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation. It received particularly poor marks in ethics enforcement, lobbying disclosure and political financing. Georgia recently capped lobbyist gifts to lawmakers at $75, finally coming into line with other states, but it still remains far below the standards Georgians deserve.

Unfortunately, ordinary citizens tend to overlook these critical issues because lobbying regulations and contracting practices are not especially sexy political issues. But Georgians need only look next door to appreciate the very real cost of lax ethical standards.

In 2011, Jefferson County, Ala., declared the then-largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, thanks to corruption surrounding a huge sewer repair project that eventually sent 17 people to jail. Residents will pay the price as their sewer rates rise 8 percent annually for four years and 3.5 percent annually thereafter to pay down the ruinous deal-in-the-dark. Good government is also good for your pocketbook.

Connecticut, which ranks second in the State Integrity Investigation, imposed a ban on political contributions from lobbyists and state vendors in 2005 to combat “pay-to-play” schemes in which elected officials reward donors with lucrative contracts. New Jersey topped the list, thanks to strong ethics laws that protect the independence and punitive powers of the State Ethics Commission, a ban on all gifts from lobbyists and mandatory annual ethics training for employees. But the recent Bridgegate scandal shows even the best states may require further reform.

Trust in American government is at historic lows. Our response cannot be disengagement, cynicism or a dismissal of all public undertakings. Instead, we must set high standards for public officials and fill the ranks of elected offices and government agencies with innovative, dedicated public servants who collaborate to find the best way to serve the public good. That’s the credo of The Volcker Alliance, founded by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to promote excellence and rebuild trust in government at every level. It is a mission we invite all Americans to join as we celebrate our nation.

Shelley H. Metzenbaum is founding president of The Volcker Alliance.

Anti-Recidivism Court helps guide youth

By Robert D. James

In the criminal justice system, we see a revolving door of defendants who are incarcerated, then released, only to re-offend. This never-ending cycle becomes a merry-go-round of misdemeanor and felony offenses. Further, national statistics reflect the correlation between high school dropout rates and incarceration rates. Curbing this cycle should be one of our nation’s highest priorities in the 21st century. Ending this cycle must be intentional, with education as the foundation, and reduced recidivism, the goal.

In 2011, upon assuming the role of DeKalb County district attorney, I worked with Magistrate Court judges and the Public Defender’s Office to stop that revolving door. Our Anti-Recidivism Court was birthed from a notion that defendants, in some specific cases, require a second chance to make the right decision.

What we often find are individuals who pay their debt to society revert back to illegal behavior because they cannot secure stable employment. They lack education, opportunity and personal drive to excel. The fact is, two-thirds of offenders between the ages of 16 to 25 will be re-arrested within three years. Knowing this, I wanted to disrupt the cycle of recidivism, especially for young people.

Can we save everyone? No. However, since the court’s creation, 22 participants have had a unique opportunity, which for them has slowed, if not stopped, the revolving door. This program offers first-time, non-violent offenders ages 17 to 25 a second chance at life. It should not be confused with a “get-out-of-jail” pass for their mistakes.

Currently, 20 participants are enrolled in the year-long Anti-Recidivism Court. They report to private probation, perform community service, undergo random drug testing, report to monthly compliance hearings, and abide by a curfew with electronic monitoring. Additionally, they must pay any restitution involved with their arrests, enroll in an academic program if they have not obtained a high school diploma or GED, and attend behavior modification classes.

Many of us have childhood friends or relatives who made poor decisions, just like our graduates. Those choices landed them behind bars or with criminal records. These mistakes became their scarlet letter, a mark that might follow them for life and potentially tarnish their promising future.

Anti-Recidivism Court intervenes in the lives of these young adults by addressing recidivism for those who want to become better adults.

Robert D. James is DeKalb County district attorney.

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