Cover Story: Tyrannosaurus Jones

Magnetic leader or monster: Will the real Vernon please stand up?

Vernon Jones walks casually among two rows of teenage police academy recruits who stand rigidly at attention, staring straight ahead.</
He leisurely eyes each uniform-clad hopeful as an upperclassman might inspect a lineup of fraternity pledges. Jones is genial and soft-spoken but carries an undeniable air of authority as he asks their names and peppers them with questions.</
"Is anyone here from North Carolina?" A tall kid answers yes. Jones takes a step toward him, locks his gaze and demands to know where he went to high school. When Jones hears the name of a rival football powerhouse, his face softens into a mischievous grin. </
"Man, we used to kick all y'all's ass!" he proclaims to muffled laughter. </
And with these words, on a sunny afternoon outside the Decatur courthouse, minutes after the end of a county memorial service for fallen police officers, the DeKalb CEO has hooked another audience. </
Jones segues into a brief, impassioned sales pitch praising the county police force - something about the crime rate and state-of-the-art helicopters - but it's superfluous. What will stick with these kids is the memory of Jones himself: Another big shot in a dark suit, to be sure, but a tall, striking, youthful big shot who spoke to them the way they speak to each other, not like some graying politician trying to sound cool. Vernon Jones seems real.</
It's a safe bet that more than one of these would-be cops will go home with this thought in the back of his mind: "I want to work for that guy."</
That guy, of course, is not the Vernon Jones you've read about in newspaper articles detailing various investigations and allegations swirling around him. Nor is it the guy rumored to have anger-management problems around women and subordinates. It's certainly not the guy you see glumly being deposed in heavy rotation on the evening news. </
This is the street-level Vernon. The tireless glad-hander who can't seem to walk 50 feet down the sidewalk without being stopped by admirers. The charismatic campaigner who woos potential supporters with a friendly quip and infectious laugh. The head of the state's largest local government who listens to constituent complaints about, say, garbage pickup, and offers assurance that he's looking into the problem. </
"You hanging in there?" the CEO asks of a thirtysomething man slouching on a bench as he hurries to his next appearance, the annual meeting of the DeKalb Bar Association in a nearby hotel ballroom.</
"If I can do it, you can do it," Jones calls to the slacker. </
It's in moments like these that Jones' ease around regular folk, his apparent sincerity and, dare we say it, his offhand charm stand in stark contrast to the popular, media-enhanced image of Jones as a power-mad egotist, a shady demagogue who's one step ahead of an indictment. </
Still, several people interviewed for this article (most of whom spoke to Creative Loafing on the condition of anonymity, so we're representing an informed consensus) suggest Jones is mellowing - and may be growing out of his apparent need to dominate his peers and bully his rivals. </
But it might be too late for an image overhaul. A pair of high-profile lawsuits left over from the CEO's first term will soon direct an even harsher spotlight on some of Vernon's first-term shenanigans, meaning things likely will get a lot worse for Jones before they get better.</
Much about Jones is contradictory, even up close. He spends long conversations bemoaning his damaged political career, then turns around and cheerily cites some initiative he'll undertake "when I'm governor." He talks of looking forward and staying focused on running the county, yet seethes with resentment over his treatment by the press, claiming Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin enjoys a "free ride" from the media.</
That's why we're here at his regular window table at Mick's across from Decatur Square. Jones wants to rehabilitate his image, and he hopes that inviting a CL reporter to shadow him for a couple of days will give readers insight into the real Vernon Jones.</
"Do you want a margarita?" he asks as the waitress arrives.</
"Um, sure," I say, somewhat taken aback. Noticing Jones' slight grin, I then ask if he's kidding.</
"Ha, did you see that? I had him going," Jones says to Burke Brennan, his communications director, who's at the table with us. The CEO's security officer, wearing a suit and dark glasses, sits nearby at the bar.</
"I didn't figure you were actually allowed to drink on the job," Jones says teasingly.</
When I joke that members of the alternative press are virtually permitted to snort coke off their desks, Jones turns back to the waitress.</
"Make that two margaritas," he says.</
Even Jones' detractors concede that the CEO has charisma to burn. Conservative columnist Dick Williams, a frequent Jones critic, says with a hint of admiration, "He's the most fascinating politician around."</
Fascinating, yes. But while Jones can be terrifically likable, it's hard to escape the feeling that what you see is only one facet of an enigmatic personality.</
Many of the accusations against Jones aren't easily discounted: that he directed redistricting efforts to unseat an uncooperative commissioner, then tried to cover up his involvement. Or that he tried to entice the county police chief to lie to a grand jury, then pressured him into resigning out of retribution when he refused. </
Even a dubious allegation that Jones ordered improper background checks on political adversaries gained traction, largely because of Jones' history of furtive behavior and political paranoia. But more on that later.</
The abundance of firsthand accounts of Jones' intimidation of women - Commissioner Elaine Boyer, former state Rep. Teresa Greene-Johnson and a Lithonia homeowner who accused the CEO of trespassing, to cite only those who filed formal complaints - suggest an aggressiveness that Jones is mostly able to conceal from the public eye.</
"I don't think he's a victim," one female politician says of her own run-in with Jones. "He's a hardcore bully." </
The list of public officials and civic leaders willing to cite ugly confrontations or bad blood with Jones - either pre-CEO or during his first term - is a veritable who's who of DeKalb politics. And whereas most successful politicians have thick skins, Jones is faulted for treating any difference of opinion as a personal attack. The problem is typically described as a deficit of maturity. </
"He believes that folks who disagree with him are disrespecting his authority," explains a prominent fellow Democratic officeholder.</
Talk to Jones any length of time and it becomes clear that he blames the bulk of his image woes on a conspiracy to discredit him that involves the news media, former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, local Republicans and a host of other political enemies. He generally dismisses his detractors as having "divisive agendas." </
Basically, if Vernon Jones were a cocktail, he'd be a Squandered Promise: two parts Bill Clinton, one part Bill Campbell and a dash of Tricky Dick. </
Like any politician, Jones thrives on encouragement from well-wishers, but he confides over lunch that he sees personal contact with ordinary DeKalbites as his only route to salvation from the media firestorm that threatens his future as a public figure.</
"For me to survive politically, I've got to talk to people," he explains. "I'll start to worry when the guy at the bus stop won't talk to me."</
And yet, it's difficult to imagine Vernon losing the man-on-the-street vote. Even now, the dapper, 6-foot-4 CEO routinely draws enthusiastic crowds when he appears in south DeKalb.</
Rather, it's the damage done by the other Vernon - secretive, paranoid, preoccupied with self-justification - that threatens to overshadow his accomplishments and upend his career. </
Much has been made of Jones' hardscrabble, rural upbringing, and for good reason; it's a touchstone for him, a refrain he comes back to again and again. </
He was the fifth of six children growing up in a house without running water on a farm in Laurel Hill, a wide spot in the road a few miles from the South Carolina border. His parents had a third-grade education. His father, who died during Jones' first campaign for CEO, was a mill worker and World War II vet. </
"When we went to the grocery," Jones recalls, "we only bought what we couldn't grow." </
Or shoot, he adds. When he was 12, he was given his first shotgun and often joined his brothers hunting rabbit and squirrel in the hills. Those outings gave him an appreciation for nature that Jones says fueled his desire to create the county greenspace program, setting aside hundreds of acres in south DeKalb for parkland.</
He says that when he graduated from high school in 1979, he was eager to leave small-town life and follow his ambitions: "I was ready to get the hell outta Dodge."</
After earning a business administration degree from North Carolina Central University in Durham, Jones was recruited to DeKalb in 1984 for management-track jobs at MCI and BellSouth.</
He says he imagined himself becoming county CEO almost as soon as he arrived. </
Created in 1985, the DeKalb CEO's post is unique in Georgia. Combining the administrative duties of a county manager with the legislative abilities of a commissioner, the job has more in common with that of a big-city mayor than the part-time commission chairmen of other metro counties. The CEO sets the commission agenda, prepares the annual county budget and oversees day-to-day operations of DeKalb's expansive government. </
The standard line on Jones is that he had it all planned out early on: Get his feet wet in local politics, sweep into office as CEO, win acclaim for his businesslike management style, then jump into a statewide race - maybe even switching parties - with the governor's mansion as his eventual target.</
Although this scenario now seems woefully off-course, he still muses on his aspirations.</
"I want to be governor because I want to help Georgia and I feel I could make a difference," he says earnestly, then dismisses any notion that he's planning a run for the post.</
Jones' first elected post was a seat in the state House representing Lithonia, which he won in 1992 and held for eight years in relative obscurity. His most memorable efforts were flashy bills - to remove the Rebel emblem from the state flag, to ban sales of music with explicit lyrics to minors, to restrict prosecutors from signing book deals about unresolved cases - that failed to gain the full backing of his Democratic colleagues.</
He left the House on a minor note of controversy, when the state attorney general's office was asked to review $25,000 in state grants he'd won for DeKalb after critics charged the money represented a "slush fund" to help him buy votes in his intended bid for CEO.</
The brief Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on the incident noted that Jones "bristled" when asked about the grants, and described him as "unapologetic," a characterization that would follow him throughout his political career.</
When Jones ran for CEO in 2000, he was only 39 and still an unknown to most folk. A fellow legislator recalls, however, that while he'd never thought of Jones as a star lawmaker, he assumed Jones would win the CEO's race because of his exceptional ability to connect with people - that, and his hunger to be liked.</
"You can tell that Vernon has been slighted repeatedly throughout his life," the legislator explains. "Vernon campaigns from what I call a place of pain; he's a great campaigner."</
He certainly was energetic in his bid for CEO. Political observers recall he seemed to be everywhere, shaking hands, meeting people, attending community meetings and, during most morning rush hours, standing at busy intersections, waving and smiling at commuters. By most accounts, Jones wanted the seat more than his opponents; he appeared ready to prove that elections can be won on sheer willpower.</
He ended up beating veteran commissioner Ken Davis in the Democratic primary runoff that August.</
But even before taking office, Jones raised eyebrows by throwing himself a lavish inaugural ball at Fernbank Museum, whereas his predecessors typically celebrated with cookies and punch at the county admin building. Jones justified the $50 ticket price by comparing the status of the CEO's position to that of the mayor of Atlanta. It's a comparison he makes routinely.</
Jones still favors dark power suits - usually Armani or Hugo Boss - but is wary that discussing his wardrobe will only fuel talk that he has extravagant tastes. When I spot a label inside his jacket that reads "Vernon Jones, CEO," he shakes his head wearily. "This was a gift from my family, because they're proud of me." </
Not long after taking office, Jones reversed himself on a campaign promise that had earned him an endorsement from the DeKalb GOP. Jones had vowed to keep the county's homestead exemption sales tax in place, while his opponent had told voters the exemption couldn't be sustained at that level. But once in office, Jones shifted 20 percent of the homestead revenues to road improvements, clearing the way for an effective tax increase. </
For the first time in his tenure, he faced public criticism - a well-aimed charge that he had weaseled out of a politically expedient campaign pledge. </
It's one of many past decisions he feels the need to defend even today, blaming critics such as Williams, publisher of the Dunwoody Crier and host of the "Georgia Gang," for beating him up over the homestead exemption.</
State Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, explains that, while many Republicans, like himself, might have cut Jones some slack on the homestead exemption, they were rankled by the CEO's defensiveness on that issue - and others. </
"He has an odd desire to have everyone agree with him," Millar observes.</
But when Millar concedes, "Our county, day-by-day, is run pretty well," he reflects a somewhat grudging consensus among the CEO's critics: Jones does seem to get the job done.</
DeKalb government is humming along. The $125 million greenspace program Jones championed has become a national model. Polls show support for his road and sidewalk improvements. DeKalb has among the lowest county taxes in the region. And south DeKalb, which boats some of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in America, is on the cusp of a long-awaited development boom. </
Many Jones observers agree that the CEO's first-term failings had little to do with his actual abilities, and more to do with his apparent inability to compromise with people who held opposing views. </
Says one longtime Jones-watcher: "He's got this weird, tall-man's Napoleon complex."</
For Jones, the shit hit the fan, media-wise, in mid-June 2003. The county was still recovering from the Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown assassination trials. But otherwise, business was running smoothly in DeKalb. In fact, commissioners had just handed Jones unprecedented power to hire government contractors when the AJC ran a long article spotlighting what was pointedly dubbed his "taxpayer-funded security detail."</
The story revealed that nearly as much money - about $250,000 a year - had been spent protecting Jones as Mayor Franklin, and it described how the CEO's security team routinely performed Secret Service-style sweeps of innocuous public events before his arrival.</
But the harshest blow to Jones' carefully burnished professional image came courtesy of his own train-wreck responses. </
Asked if his bodyguards follow him on social outings, Jones' sarcastic reply helped cement the perception of the CEO as a man high on his own fumes: "When the president goes out or Rudy Giuliani goes on a date, does someone go with him?" </
The next day's AJC contained a small story detailing charges of trespassing that had been brought against Jones by a Lithonia activist who said he had shown up at her house uninvited and yelled at her over a neighborhood policy disagreement. </
"He was just ranting and raving," Pauline Holder was quoted as saying.</
Media-wise, it all went downhill from there.</
By now, much of the litany of mini-scandals and peccadilloes involving the CEO is familiar even to the most casual onlooker:</
Two successive county grand juries deemed Jones' security detail excessive and suggested his authority be reined in. </
The Fulton Daily Report revealed that Jones had bought his Brookhaven condo from accused mortgage-flipper Phil Hill, even though it already had been sold to someone else. Although many of his new neighbors were defrauded, the outstanding mortgage on Jones' crib was mysteriously paid off. What's more, Jones continued to vote in the precinct serving his prior, south DeKalb address, and was accused of doing so to maintain a false tie to the majority African-American neighborhood.</
Commissioner Boyer, who had previously accused Jones of launching into "tirades" against her, filed a police complaint claiming the CEO had intentionally bumped her in a hallway after a particularly contentious commission meeting.</
Jones' purchase of a 54-acre homestead in southeast DeKalb a short distance from Arabia Mountain, where the county was buying up parkland, spurred many to ask if the CEO was attempting to profit from the greenspace program.</
Greene-Johnson, running against Jones for CEO in early 2004, filed for a restraining order, claiming he and several supporters aggressively confronted her while she was campaigning.</
Lance Robertson, Jones' deputy chief of staff, was charged with false imprisonment after being accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old girl. Police arrested Robertson at an Atlanta house owned by Jones that should have been listed on the CEO's financial disclosure, but wasn't.</
Three current and former county employees, all of them white, sued Jones for racial discrimination, claiming he had professed a desire for a "darker administration."</
Jones was blasted for attending the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens on a secret junket funded by the county development authority, and for reportedly telling his staff not to reveal where he'd gone.</
Shortly after Jones' re-election last summer, DeKalb police Chief Eddie Moody abruptly resigned, later claiming Jones used a go-between to pressure him into retirement after he refused to take the heat for the CEO's security detail.</
Allegations surfaced last fall that dozens of police background checks had been performed on some of Jones' political adversaries and critics, sparking a probe to determine if the checks had been illegally ordered. </
And, to ring in 2005 with a fresh scandal, Jones' new year began with allegations by a 29-year-old woman that the CEO raped her in his house. Whatever the legal outcome of the rape charge against Jones (his alibi is that he was hosting a menage a trois!), at least it put to rest the notion that he's gay. The origin of the gay rumor is unknown, but it likely was a product of the same kind of inquiring minds that imagine Tom Cruise as a Castro Street regular. Vernon has never been married, usually appears alone in public and is tight-lipped about his private life; he's well-groomed, a snappy dresser and keeps in shape; and he had a series of male housemates well into his 30s, including former staff member Robertson. </
To Jones' critics, each new accusation seems to confirm those that came before it - and fuel anticipation for the ones to follow. Although observers say they don't know how much truth there is to each allegation, they note that the sheer volume and frequency look bad. That's for sure. </
Jones seems unwilling to concede that any of the criticism directed at him is justified. Even now, two years later, he rejects the notion that the public's interest in his security team reflected a valid concern about government waste. </
Instead, he focuses on inconsistencies in the news coverage about him, picking out loaded phrasing that he says reveals an anti-Vernon slant.</
"I happen to have a small group of enemies," Jones says, "but they control the media and they used to control the DA's office." </
Yet former District Attorney Morgan says he paid little attention to Jones' security detail before the first AJC article came out. He says the story outraged members of a civil grand jury who initiated their own investigation without his urging.</
"I got stuck with it," Morgan says. </
But regardless of whether Morgan was a self-appointed Javert to Jones' Jean Valjean, there have been plenty of scandals that undoubtedly were made worse by the CEO's own defensiveness.</
A classic example is the Moody affair. </
Last August, Moody's estranged wife told reporters that Jones had pressured her husband to quit through an emissary, the Rev. Wiley Jackson. Jones not only denied having sent Jackson to tell Moody to step down but insisted he hadn't even spoken to Jackson about the chief. Last month, however, in a taped deposition, Jones contradicted his earlier statements, saying he recalled talking with Jackson about Moody before the chief's departure.</
The irony is that it's within Jones' authority to hire and fire the police chief; if he had wanted Moody gone, he didn't need to resort to an underhanded maneuver. And if Jackson really had taken it upon himself to approach Moody - the two are childhood friends - then why should Jones deny the conversation with the minister took place?</
In other words, if Jones was lying about his role in Moody's resignation, it's a lie he didn't need to tell.</
More seriously, Jones also has been accused of asking Moody - again through Jackson - to give false testimony to the 2003 county grand jury by telling the panel that it was he, and not Jones, who was responsible for the CEO's costly security detail. Morgan notes that it would be ironically Clintonesque of Jones to be indicted for encouraging perjury in an attempt to cover up something that wasn't illegal in the first place.</
Still, when Jones complains about the blood-in-the-water media coverage about him, he's onto something. </
Take the small stir that arose last fall when a suspicious $1 million contract at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport went to a company owned by Mayor Franklin's son and ex-husband. A judge ruled that the contract had been improperly awarded, but most of the heat fell on airport general manager Ben DeCosta, not Franklin.</
Jones is keenly aware of this apparent double-standard. It eats at him. </
Franklin had a bigger security detail than his, he says, and she, too, doubled back on her pledge not to take a pay increase. But she recently picked up a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award, while he remains in the media doghouse.</
"Anybody can balance the budget by raising taxes," he scoffs. "It's all about how it gets reported."</
Consider the still-simmering scandal involving police background checks. Last fall, the AJC reported that DeKalb police had performed "unauthorized computer searches" on a number of Jones' political rivals, fellow county officials and journalists. The articles liberally quoted sources, such as Boyer, willing to point fingers at the CEO.</
But the allegations didn't quite add up. The background checks were labeled suspicious because many were carried out without the subjects' knowledge, yet DeKalb police routinely perform thousands of such searches a year by keying license-plate numbers into their patrol car computers. </
In the end, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded that the checks were not done improperly and that no evidence linked them to Jones.</
Not that the GBI report put a lid on suspicions.</
On his way to lunch after a Tuesday commission meeting, Jones spotted WSB-TV anchor Richard Belcher, one of the search subjects, walking into a parking deck and called after him.</
"See, I told you there was nothing there," Jones said. </
"It still stinks," Belcher replied.</
Angelo Fuster, a well-known political operative who's worked both for Jones and the now-disgraced Bill Campbell, says there are unfortunate parallels in how the CEO and the ex-mayor deal with criticism.</
"It's sad that so many of Jones' accomplishments are obscured by small matters, some of which are of his own making," says Fuster, who still regularly consults with the CEO. "I would like to see more discipline in his reaction to the media, more maturity."</
Although Fuster says he believes Jones has been the victim of biased news coverage, he adds, "I don't believe there's a conspiracy on the part of the AJC."</
On the other hand, Fuster predicts Jones could outlast his critics and emerge from the CEO's office with a strong record on which to tackle his next race, whatever that might be.</
"I don't see this as the end of his political career," Fuster says. "He's a great campaigner, an attractive and engaging candidate, and he has the ability to be a great leader."</
"This is fabulous!" Jones announces with childlike wonder as we drive deep into the cool forest of the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve. We're crammed into a "mule," sort of a sport-utility golf cart, along with Jones' chief of staff, Ann Kimbrough; his communications director Brennan; a security officer; and park ranger Tyrone Burkette, who's volunteered to act as tour guide on his day off.</
But it's Vernon Jones who seems in charge of the tour. And he's clearly enjoying himself as he steers the mule through the trees and across acres of open granite.</
He pulls off the trail to show off recent park improvements - a covered bridge, freshly blazed trails, elevated boardwalks - that, when completed, will make Arabia Mountain the jewel of Jones' greenspace program. At each stop, Brennan scurries to take photos of the CEO to post on the county's website. </
In this lush setting, miles from the bustle of Decatur, Jones radiates confidence, even hopefulness. A passer-by might be excused for thinking this guy is sitting on top of the world.</
But then, when I stop by his office one morning a few days later, his mood is low-key and melancholy. His voice is tinged with bitterness.</
"I really have no desire to run for anything else," he says, unprompted. "Maybe when I leave office, I'll start a local newspaper in order to tell people the truth."</
To find a recent, if more modest, parallel to Jones' predicament, one need look no further than DeKalb's first African-American school superintendent, Johnny Brown. </
In July 2002, Brown ruffled feathers with his first edict, a widely unpopular student dress code. Quickly branded as dictatorial and inaccessible, Brown divided the school board and never found his footing with parents. When copies of a student newspaper criticizing the superintendent vanished, Brown was accused of having them seized. When a system employee made insensitive comments about gays at a student assembly, Brown took flak for not disciplining him harshly enough. </
As far as his critics were concerned, Brown could do nothing right. </
So, last fall, the embattled school board bought out the remaining seven months of Brown's contract, giving him the heave-ho. Six months later, the first line of a recent AJC article about Brown's replacement gushed, "Everybody loves Crawford Lewis."</
The lesson here is an obvious one, as applicable to NCAA legend Bobby Knight as to UGA's Michael Adams: Personal style matters as much as job performance. Maybe more. </
Even Jones seems to have gotten the message. "It's not what you do," he says in a moment of reflection, "it's what people think you do."</
But if Vernon is trying to rein in his ego and learn to play better with others, that's not the image that's likely to be on display when Jacqueline Scott's civil rights lawsuit goes to trial next month in U.S. District Court. Scott, a former DeKalb commissioner who is white, accused Jones of urging DeKalb legislators in 2002 to draw her out of her south DeKalb district.</
Although Jones is not a defendant in the suit - that honor falls on the DeKalb Board of Elections - Scott's case centers around her assertion that the CEO wanted her gone to strengthen his influence over the seven-member commission by having a black majority.</
In depositions, Jones not only swears that he didn't pressure lawmakers to oust Scott, but that he never expressed a preference for a redistricting map - a preposterous claim for DeKalb's head honcho.</
In fact, Jones' statements directly contradict those of his allies, the very legislators who were accused of drawing Scott out. </
Again, if Vernon was fibbing about his advisory role in the redistricting effort, it was likely a gratuitous fib that Scott's attorney, former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, can be expected to jump on with both feet (much as Bowers' law partner, former District Attorney Morgan, has embarrassed the CEO by pointing out inconsistencies in his statements regarding Moody).</
With this and other public relations hurdles to clear, is it possible that Jones will be able to pick up the pieces and repair his political career?</
Perhaps the answer can be found in a bit of hard-earned wisdom that the late segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox once offered to Vernon as encouragement.</
As Jones recalls with a smile: "Lester once told me there's something to being a little controversial."</

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