By Maggie West / Beacon Media
Milton's Tina D'Arversa had a rough political 2009.
She got thumped in her re-election bid in November by newcomer Joe Longoria as a shroud of ethics charges and alleged threats to prominent local businessmen hung over her head throughout her campaign like a nefarious black rain cloud.
Now, 2010 looks even more ominous for the former city councilwoman.
On Wednesday night, Milton's Board of Ethics convicted D'Aversa of violating two Articles -- sections 3.8 and 4.8 -- of the city's ethics code. In the aftermath of a hearing characterized by semantic smoke and mirrors, even the word "conviction" raised eyebrows.
But as Milton City Council Member Bill Lusk observed, "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it's a duck. It's a conviction."
CONTENTIOUS DELIBERATION LASTS SIX HOURS
The verdict came after six hours of concerted deliberation -- sometimes heated, sometimes sluggishly hesitant. Amid a pervasive atmosphere of ambiguity, the board often seemed unable to agree even on a concise definition of ethical conduct.
Milton's Board of Ethics Chairman Clint Johnson proved a notable exception. Referring to D'Aversa's now infamous city email, Johnson asserted to a room packed full of residents, city officials, and reporters that a "ninth grade English student can read that sentence and know what it means."
The sentence in question was an excerpt from a 2009 e-mail exchange between D'Aversa and her opponent, then city council candidate Joe Longoria, sent from her city email account, and obtained by this newspaper via an Open Records Request. "My intention is for you to join a board or committee and to withdraw your application to seek my council position serving District 5," D'Aversa wrote, ultimately opening her to charges of "quid pro quo" influence peddling.
Other incriminating lines in her email presented as evidence against D'Aversa included: "Lets...move forward without a costly campaign for the council position" and "Presently, I have appointees serving on the Hwy. 9 Board, but believe I can place you on this board without a challenge."
The "costly campaign" email statement proved problematic for D'Aversa because of the potential for "personal financial gain." Candidates for elective office bear the full cost of their own campaign, either through fundraising, using their own money, or both. If running unopposed, the candidate's costs are minimal: a $390 filing fee and a few incidentals. Fulton County's Board of Election charges a fee of ten percent of the total cost for supervising an election in any city. The total includes general expenses: poll boxes, employees, etc. As Johnson stated at the hearing, the number of candidates on the ballot in any given election has no effect on the total money spent. Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood later disagreed with Johnson's statement, but according to Stacey English, Finance Director for the City of Milton, the city's fees in the last election amounted to $68,897, with or without D'Aversa running unopposed.
SMOKING GUN EMAIL TURNS INTO A BAZOOKA- POINTED AT D'AVERSA
Drawing attention to another of D'Aversa's email statements, where she offered Longoria a board appointment if he withdrew from the council race, Matt E. Scott, attorney for the complainant, Milton resident Neal O'Brien, noted that city council has never rejected anyone touted by a council member for appointment to a board or committee.
The incendiary documents precipitated a seven-page, nineteen-item sworn complaint, filed against D'Aversa by O'Brien. Although O'Brien's complaint cites "several email messages," Milton's Board of Ethics ruled that only the initial message was admissible as evidence.
Beyond alleging that D'Aversa "engag[ed] in conduct unbecoming to a member which constitutes a breach of the public trust" and that she made "unauthorized use of public property for personal benefit, convenience or profit" (the only two offenses of which the board actually convicted her), O'Brien's complaint contained numerous allegations, ranging from bribery to the use of government property to aid a political candidate. As the full text of the complaint was also excluded, the board considered only D'Aversa's initial email to Longoria, and the city's ethics code that applied to it (section 3.8).
Lucian Gillis, D'Aversa's attorney, and three members of the board emphasized the haziness of the offense -- of the wording in the e-mail. The defense made two additional points: D'Aversa was unaware of any wrongdoing; unaware of the exact wording of the city's ethic codes. The complainant's attorney, however, refuted the claim by reiterating the famous quote, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse."
A cloud of cronyism and questionable competence overhung the proceedings from the beginning -- Board of Ethics members are unelected, and appointed by the City Council. Milton members and their appointees are as follows: Chairman Clint Johnson appointed by Lusk; Kristen White appointed by Councilwoman Karen Thurman; Howard Drobes appointed by Councilman Alan Tart; Lisa Cauley appointed by Mayor Joe Lockwood; Carl Haase appointed by Councilman Burt Hewitt; and Jerry Stevens appointed by newcomer Longoria
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS A REASON FOR RECUSAL?
During deliberation, three board members considered D'Aversa's offer to Longoria innocuous, opining that "nothing happened." And on 3.8's first go-around, three voted that a violation occurred -- Johnson, White, and Drobes; one abstained -- Stevens; and two voted against the allegation -- Cauley and Haase. Public records show that Cauley's contributions to D'Aversa's re-election campaign amounted to half of the total money she raised, and that D'Aversa's main fundraiser was held at Cauley's Doris Road residence. Additionally, the D'Aversa hearing was Cauley and Haase's first. Neither underwent the ethics training required of the others, nor held any previous experience.
As the six-hour marathon wore on, other questions arose from the committee members, such as: is it unethical to offer an opponent in an election a position on any board or committee in return for withdrawing from a political race, and whether or not the offer, in and of itself, was unethical.
JOHNSON LEFT NO DOUBT
Johnson apparently thought so. Citing his youth in Michigan's notorious Cook County, he warned against the danger of progressive, small-scale corruption, and underscored the necessity of uprooting it before it took hold. "Whether it's favors, five cents, or thousands makes no difference," he stressed, while clarifying ethical conduct to the board.
What the city ethics committee chairman considered as a clear-cut matter of right or wrong, though, soon degenerated into Milton's version of the O.J. Simpson trial as the board deconstructed D'Aversa's email phrase by phrase; analyzing the text for every conceivable shade of meaning and intent.
After prolonged deliberation, the second vote on article 3.8 resulted in four of the six board members -- Johnson, White, Drobes, and Stevens -- agreeing that D'Aversa's conduct was indeed in violation of the code. Consequently, D'aversa became the first person convicted by the Milton Board of Ethics since its inception.
It may have been a hollow victory for those in favor of conviction, though. The board's disciplinary options included a letter of warning or reprimand, removal from office, demanding reimbursement for misused or misappropriated funds, and referring the matter to the state. The board voted the first down 5-1. As D'Aversa lost the election and hadn't used city funds, the second and third were inapplicable. Moreover, O'Brien had already referred the matter to the state.
BOARD MAY BE OVERHAULED
Following Tuesday night's conviction, Lusk, Thurman, and Lockwood agreed that their board of ethics needs improvement. "We need to overhaul the whole ordinance. We should eliminate the board and hire an outside source," Lusk declared. "I believe that the ordinance as it's written needs updating. An ethics board made up of Milton residents cannot be totally unbiased," Thurman noted. Lockwood also agreed, saying, "We need to change the whole process and not have an ethics board made up of residents."
Lusk, however, went further. "The [key] points in this ethics charge were not addressed or considered properly. They were off-handedly discounted. As far as the discussions went, they were too touchy-feely. New members were more interested in feelings rather than facts. They were off target by trying to justify the charges rather than critique them."
"It was an embarrassment even with Chairman Johnson there," stated a Johns Creek resident, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Without him it would have been a travesty." Ironically, three years ago, the Georgia Municipal Association recognized Milton as a "Certified City of Ethics:" an honor -- and fond memory -- to some in attendance.
Milton's apparent "zero tolerance" attitude towards its elected officials' ethical shortcomings is perhaps a sign of the times. In a political atmosphere in which names like Deal, Richardson, Patterson and Rangel are both household words and synonyms for "scandal," a small town ethics hearing may seem a relatively minor issue. In a broader political context -- characterized by the rise of grass roots "tea party" movements -- it may be symptomatic of an increasingly frustrated electorate opposing "business as usual" at the most basic level. Whether the phenomenon foreshadows a long-term trend or is merely a matter of reflexive "backlash," however, remains to be seen.
MORE TROUBLES AHEAD FOR D'AVERSA?
Perhaps caught in a time bubble, D'Aversa's ethics charges with the state of Georgia, currently under investigation, are not likely to be dismissed. The cloud of bad conduct that now hangs over the Gold Dome may indeed seep into D'Aversa case. The most troublesome aspect of D'Aversa's conduct -- at the state level -- may be a probe into whether or not her email constituted bribery. One official in North Fulton, familiar with the situation, surmised that the Milton conviction does not bode well for D'Aversa at the state level. "The fact that she got convicted as a private citizen shows you how blatant her offenses were," the official proffered. "It's not a good sign for things to come."