Vendetta against Vernon?

DeKalb CEO's summer scandal didn't deserve to be such a hit

What Vernon Jones
likes to call a political witch hunt started with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative story, describing how the DeKalb CEO has been flanked by a five-member security detail costing the county nearly $300,000 a year. When the story's findings hatched a grand jury civil investigation into the security detail and guards' overtime pay, the real mudslinging began.

The grand jury produced a confidential report, the contents of which a judge ruled had violated Jones' due-process rights and could defame him if released. So it was sealed, portions edited out and later released.

Somewhere in this chronology, wild speculation surrounding Jones' private life, including allegations of a problematic arrogance and mysterious bedroom habits, became public banter. The gossips hissed, "Are there scintillating details in the report? Are guards accompanying him to unsavory destinations? What's an unmarried man got to hide?"

The edited report was made public, but not before the AJC got hold of the original one and wrote a few un-sexy stories about it. That's the gist of Jones' 2003 summer from hell.

The funny thing is, the portions of the report struck from the public record were nothing special. So what's the deal?

CL viewed the redacted portions of the report, but only after agreeing not to identify the party who provided them. Nor will we be able to disclose what's in the original report. (We promised.)

But we can say what's not in there.

There's no mention whatsoever of Jones' private life. There's no scintillating sexcapades, no lavish parties. There's not even anything indicative (at least on the surface) of a political witch hunt. And there's hardly anything that wasn't divulged by the AJC — stuff that's too boring to recount here.

Now, with so much speculation out of the way, it's apparent that the heart of the Jones "scandal" is not that some damning evidence (or gossipy controversy, or even mild innuendo) was withheld from the public. The real bummer is that Jones' was guaranteed certain rights by the judge — rights based on case law and a state Supreme Court decision — and that those rights were trampled.

That's not to say that Jones handled this affair like a champ, or that the AJC was out of line covering a report that's under seal. Any reporter — especially one who'd broke a story and had been following it for three months — is going to want a copy of said report. And Jones made the case all the more tantalizing — perhaps even elevating it from a minor ordeal to a big old mess — by trying to quash his subpoena to testify. (Oh, he must have something to hide!)

According to the report — both versions — he didn't.

"We were never embarrassed or ashamed about what was in the report," Jones says. "It was whether or not I was receiving due process. And the judge agreed with us, and the judge ruled that way. Every citizen is entitled to due process. What excludes me?"

The due-process hang-up stems, in part, from the convoluted procedures by which a civil grand jury operates. It's not like a criminal grand jury investigation, during which the accused gets to hear all the evidence against him and then respond to it. With a civil grand jury, there's no indictment. There's no alleged crime.

So DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gail Flake gave Jones the opportunity to suggest portions to be struck from the report. Then Flake ultimately decided what would stay and what would go.

"Reports of the kind that we are dealing with here offer no such right to the one defamed," the judge wrote in one of several orders, quoting a Supreme Court decision on the topic of civil grand juries. "The individual who is named in the report ... has little if any opportunity to adequately respond to the report's accusations. ... [I]t subjects him to the odium of condemnation ... without giving him the slightest opportunity to defend himself."

In her own words, the judge stated, "Logic likewise dictates that where possible, such claims should be addressed before the alleged harm from publication of such 'charges' occur."

Jones says he feels vindicated by the judge's ruling. "Let's forget about my suspicions. What did the judge say? The judge issued a ruling, not an opinion. The judge said that clearly there were questions about due process. Justice prevailed. We're glad that this is over. We're ready to move this county forward. This is behind us now. This is over."

Over, perhaps, but Jones isn't exactly off the hook. The grand jury report (the unsealed, deletion-free one) skewered Jones' security detail, calling it "badly mismanaged" and a "considerable waste of public funds."

"It is clear from the evidence presented to the Grand Jury," the report states, "that the provision of security for the CEO is in need of urgent modification."

But the report also describes how Jones has had the same five security guards on his detail in 2001 (the year he took office), 2002 and 2003. Jones and Sgt. Donald Frank, head of Jones' security team, deny this.

According to Frank, there were three guards on the detail in 2001, with one assigned to each of the 14 shifts per week, either from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 3 to 11 p.m. (The other two of the "five" would occasionally substitute should one of the three full-time guards be sick or on vacation.) One of the three full-timers left in 2002, so one of the substitutes was then hired. Another full-timer left in 2003, so the second substitute was hired.

That would put Jones' annual security costs at around $550,000 from 2001 until now — not so far off from the AJC's report of $630,000 as of June.

Jones' predecessor, Liane Levetan, had just one full-time guard who was paid $62,336 in 2000 to work Monday through Friday, as well as a second guard who worked the weekend. Once Jones took office, he nearly tripled Levetan's security costs.

Then again, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has six full-time guards assigned to her, according to the mayor's spokeswoman, Sandra Walker. They run an average annual cost of $308,000, compared to Jones' $223,000. And Franklin is the best public official to whom to compare Jones.

Jones's position, unlike that of most heads of counties (the chairmen of county commissions), is full-time. Also unlike most heads of counties, Jones also has executive powers similar to Franklin's. And Jones oversees services to 700,000 constituents in unincorporated DeKalb, versus Franklin's 430,000 in the city of Atlanta.

"This was blown out of proportion," says Jones. "You can go right across the county line to a smaller government and find twice the detail."