By Pat Cooper
In a unanimous vote, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners voted to reimburse commission chairman Steve Brown for his attorney’s costs in defending himself against an ethics complaint filed by former commissioner Robert Horgan.
When the agenda item arose, Brown handed the gavel over to commission vice chairman Charles Oddo and left the room, asking to be called back after the decision was made.
On March 13, the Fayette County Ethics Board dismissed the complaint filed by Robert Horgan alleging that Brown had broken the county’s ethics ordinance by directing the county marshal’s office to conduct an investigation into former county attorney Scott Bennett. Brown had already been found guilty on a similar complaint and on a complaint that he had broken the bond of the executive session meeting by requesting information from the state attorney general’s office.
According to Horgan’s third complaint, “aggravating the nature of Mr. Brown’s action in this matter is the fact that Mr. Brown already had a pending ethics complaints against him regarding giving a directive to the Human Resources Director. This put Mr. Brown on notice that such acts are prohibited. This board should deal harshly with Mr. Brown as he is showing a blatant disregard for county policy and the ethics ordinance.”
“I personally contacted each one of you to report the missing hard drive (later identified as Mr. Bennett’s unacceptable behavior) and to discuss the proper action to recover county property and records. Mr. Bennett’s total disregard for authority and the Georgia Open Records Act resulted in two investigations, revealing Mr. Bennett was guilty of taking the hard drive and wiping the information from it and that he was in violation of his contract for practicing private law, without permission, when he was supposed to be working solely as the county attorney,” Brown said in a memo to the commission.
In preparing for his defense, Brown hired the Whalen law firm to represent him and the total fee came to $2,128.85.
“I am appalled by the fact that $2,128.85 had to be spent to defend my reporting a theft of county property containing highly sensitive and privileged legal data.
“In my opinion, Mr. Horgan should be made responsible for this bill for making frivolous allegations without conducting any research, although careless activity was par for the course during his tenure.”
Brown has already filed an appeal to his conviction in Fayette County’s superior court. In the petition, Brown’s attorney Drew Whalen, said that Brown was found guilty because he gave “a direct instruction to the county’s human resources director to seek a legal opinion from the Ga. Attorney General.” Brown’s contention is that it was a request, not an order and that he was acting on behalf of the hiring committee.
Brown also said he was acting on behalf of the hiring committee established to select a new county administrator, and that if he had felt it was an order, he would have demanded that the HR director comply with the request.
As for the second conviction, on the premise that Brown disclosed information from the commission’s executive session meeting, Whalen noted that Brown sought the input of Attorney General Sam Olens because he didn’t trust the legal advice the commission was being given by Bennett.
The appeal was filed because the board didn’t agree with the evidence produced and is a violation of Brown’s constitutional rights and subject to a judicial review, calling the ethics board decision arbitrary and capricious.
Commissioner David Barlow said that his understanding of the situation was that Brown was working for the benefit of the county and not for any personal gain.
“That makes it easy for me to say that we should cover his expenses while he was doing something that involved the county.”
Similarly, commissioner Randy Ognio echoed the comment, adding that “he didn’t create the situation, he was working in an official capacity and should be reimbursed.”
Oddo had the lengthiest statement and explanation for his decision to reimburse Brown.
“When I ran for office, my goal was to communicate to the citizens to let them know why I make the decisions I make. Those decisions may not be popular, but they will be reasoned. It’s ironic that the question of reimbursement is an ethical one.”
Oddo called the seating of the ethics board a rushed process and he called the current ethics ordinance flawed.
“It’s an intangible type of thing. You can’t cover everything. When written rules conflict with good sense, good sense should prevail.”
As far as the board was concerned, the board was drawn up to hear the complaint about a former employee, there was little time to vet the candidates, there was little discussion by the then-reigning board of commissioners and alternate candidates weren’t considered.
“The whole process itself was less than ethical and shouldn’t have been done.”
He said he saw members of the ethics board vote, in a split decision, to find Brown guilty of his first two complaints.
“Good sense took a back seat. They found him technically guilty and put a black mark on his career unless he can remove it through the courts. No employee of Fayette County should be put in that position.
In the next go-around, though, Oddo pointed out that the complaint was dropped in another split decision.
“I’m not sure the situation wasn’t rooted in the past fractious relationship. Is it fair to Steve Brown to be marked unethical by the county he was serving?“
Oddo added that he didn’t believe it was fair not to pay the legal expenses.
“Legally, the county isn’t obligated to do so and under other circumstances I would say no, I wouldn’t consider this viable. Ethically I believe reimbursement is the proper thing to do.”