The presidential race, as it turns out, is not the only place to find election season drama in Gwinnett County.
District Attorney Danny Porter threw the proverbial hand grenade in his race against Democratic challenger Patsy Austin-Gatson this past week. The longtime DA, who is running for a final term of office, filed an ethics complaint with the State Ethics Commission, alleging Austin-Gatson, her husband, Travis, and former sheriff candidate Curtis Clemons have been violating campaign ethics laws for months.
Austin-Gatson and Clemons have denied the allegations, however, and accused Porter of playing politics with less than two months to go before election day.
It’s essentially a case of He said/They said.
“Gwinnett’s citizens should be able to count on their District Attorney candidates to have the highest ethical standards,” Porter said in a statement.
“As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Porter’s desperate,” Austin-Gatson told the Daily Post. “He’s making so many allegations, just trying to sully my name, and I think he’s just seen the handwriting on the wall. The people want change.”
The State Ethics Commission confirmed that it has opened an investigation into the complaint filed by Porter. Campaign rules in Georgia prohibit the use of government resources for campaigning.
Gatson has already filed a response to Porter’s complaint with the State Ethics Commission and Clemons said he plans to file his response with the state on Monday.
Porter is alleging multiple violations by both his opponent and Clemons, who was defeated by Keybo Taylor in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary run-off for sheriff.
Austin-Gatson, her husband and Clemons all work for Solicitor General Brian Whiteside’s office.
Allegation against Austin-Gatson include: she and her husband allegedly made campaign fundraising calls while on county time; Solicitor’s Office employees were seen loading her campaign signs into a county vehicle and later placing them on a roadway; and that she asked county employees to help them create, edit and print campaign materials.
“It’s disturbing that my opponent would allegedly commit these corrupt acts. It is never acceptable to campaign on taxpayer’s time, while using taxpayer-funded government equipment, and pressuring your subordinates into campaigning for you,” Porter said in a statement.
“If true, these allegations show that Mrs. Austin-Gatson is willing to abuse her power — and possibly commit criminal acts — just to win an election. This alleged behavior is beneath the standards of the office that Mrs. Austin-Gatson seeks.”
Meanwhile, the accusations against Clemons are that he also asked county employees to help them create, edit and print campaign materials and that he violated ethics rules by filming a campaign ad with Whiteside inside the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center during business hours.
One other violation, for which Porter included a statement from an investigator with the Hall County solicitor’s office, alleges Austin-Gatson’s husband handed out cards promoting his wife’s campaign while on a trip to Hall County with another employee from the Solicitor’s Office to obtain a search warrant for medical records.
In a statement included in Porter’s complaint, Hall County solicitor’s Office Investigator Andrew Ledbetter said Travis Gatson mentioned his wife’s campaign and handed out her campaign business cards to everyone in the courtroom.
“He stated that it was time Danny to go and change was needed in that office. Gatson stated that they could use all of the support they could get,” Ledbetter said in the statement attached to the complaint.
Austin-Gatson said the incident with her husband was misconstrued.
“My husband said somebody started talking about the campaign season and he mentioned ‘Yeah, My wife is running for DA in Gwinnett,’ “ she said. “So the judge was asking about me and he handed her one of my cards.”
As for the other allegations about making fundraising phone calls on county time, having employees produce campaign materials and Solicitor’s Office employees loading her campaign signs into a county car and putting them out on a roadway, she said none of them are true.
She said she hired an outside company to place signs for her.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that he would allege all of this stuff,” Austin-Gatson said. “My materials for my campaign have all been made from a union shop in Decatur ... I’ve never campaigned on county premises and all of that stuff.”
Similarly, Clemons denied having county employees produce campaign materials — calling it a “complete falsehood” — and said the filming of the ad with Whiteside was not accurately described in the complaint.
They scheduled the filming so they could do it when they would not be on county time, the former candidate said.
“That is a very distorted claim,” Clemons said of the allegation. “Yes, Brian Whiteside and I filmed a video during normal business hours (but) we were on my off time and it was on his lunch time.”
Clemons said he was caught off guard by the complaint since his election season ended with his loss to Taylor in the primary runoff last month.
“You have to wonder why these allegations came out now,” he said. “As for me, the elections process for me, I lost the runoff so the elections process for me is over.”