Chairman gives up county car, vows to clear his name

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett Chairman Charles Bannister said Tuesday he will be exonerated, after his Monday night arrest on DUI charges.

While a Breathalyzer registered his blood alcohol level at zero, a blood test is pending, and in an arrest report, a Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department deputy said Bannister failed field sobriety tests and admitted to drinking one or two beers.

Bannister turned over his keys to his county-issued Crown Victoria, the car he was driving when pulled over Monday after leaving Cafe Hot Wing in Lilburn, but he said the Breathalyzer report proves that he was doing nothing wrong.

"I apologize to the residents of Gwinnett County, my colleagues, and my family for any embarrassment this has caused," the Lilburn man, 71, said in a statement. "Until this matter is resolved, I will not drive any county vehicles but will continue to perform my duties as county commission chairman. In the end, I am confident I will be completely exonerated."

In more than three decades in political life, including 18 years in the Georgia General Assembly, Bannister has born his share of the limelight, including recent controversies over the county's trash plan and a tax increase and a grand jury investigation into land deals.

"As an elected official we're all in a fish bowl," Lilburn Mayor Diana Preston said, declining to pass judgment before the facts were known. "I sympathize with him in that. ... My heart goes out to him."

With few details available and the conflicting reports on the field sobriety tests and Breathalyzer, few officials wanted to comment about Bannister's situation.

None of the four commissioners who sit on the board alongside Bannister returned phone calls Tuesday. Those may be the only group to hold the power to reprimand the chairman.

Elected officials must resign if they are convicted of a felony, but Bannister's charges are misdemeanors.

County spokesman Joe Sorenson said the county does not have a zero-tolerance policy on the use of county vehicles, although termination is an option for an employee involved in DUI in a county car.

"This matter involves an elected official and not an employee. There isn't a person here who can discipline him," Sorenson said. "What we would probably do (for a regular employee) was what the chairman has voluntarily done."

Randy DeVault, who has filed paperwork for a recall campaign against the chairman, said the arrest "means nothing to us" in regard to changing the approach to the recall petition, which a judge will hold a hearing on next month.

"He and his family have my sympathies for his poor judgment and actions," DeVault said.

Sorenson said Bannister spent much of his day Tuesday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center and continued his normal schedule, which included meetings with the county administrator and an update on an expansion proposal for the government complex.

In his statement, Bannister did not mention his future as vice chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission and other important regional roles.

Officials estimate results of Bannister's blood test will be back within a month, giving plenty of time for speculation but a long wait for definitive answers.

By then, the trash plan will be in place, new tax bills could be in the mail and the recall hearing may have been decided. Still, the judgment will wait,

"I don't think it would be appropriate to comment ... until he's had his day in court," said Julianne Thompson of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, who has spoken out against the commission in rallies over the trash plan and the tax increase. "Here in America, we are considered innocent until proven guilty."