The Irish author Oscar Wilde once wrote, “I can resist anything except temptation.”
Wilde could have been writing about Georgia politicians when he penned those words. The elected officials in this state have proved time and again that when it comes to temptation, especially the temptation of dollars, some of them just can’t resist it.
The latest example to make the news is state Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), who’s facing the prospect of a federal trial on numerous counts of mail, wire and tax fraud that could bring a prison sentence of as long as 20 years and fines of as much as $250,000.
Brooks has been a member of the Georgia House of Representatives for more than 30 years. As a legislator, he has championed many of the causes he took up as a civil rights activist. One of those campaigns involved removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, an effort that succeeded in 2001.
There seems to have been another side to Brooks as well. A federal grand jury returned a 30-count indictment in May that accuses him of diverting funds from two non-profit organizations he had been operating for nearly 20 years.
From 1995 through 2012, it is alleged that Brooks solicited more than $780,000 in contributions for an outfit called Universal Humanities that supposedly was established to combat illiteracy in disadvantaged communities.
Instead, prosecutors say that Brooks was using the money to pay such personal expenses as home repairs, furniture, lawn service, life insurance, entertainment, personal credit card expenses, dry cleaning, electronic equipment, and jewelry.
There is a similar situation with the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials (GABEO), which Brooks heads as the president. Brooks has been accused of secretly opening a GABEO bank account with himself as the sole signer. He is charged with depositing donations that he solicited for GABEO into this account — about $300,000 — and using the money to pay personal expenses.
“It’s a very disappointing day,” U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said at a news conference discussing Brooks’ indictment. “Representative Brooks has done much good in his life, both as a state legislator and civil rights leader.”
Marietta attorney Roy Barnes, who as governor conferred with Brooks and other black legislators on changing the state flag, is defending him against the federal charges. Barnes argues that the situation involving Brooks can be attributed to “bad bookkeeping, maybe, but not a crime.”
A trial jury will determine whether Barnes or federal prosecutors are closer to the truth. Even if only a few of the charges are accurate, it looks like Brooks pulled off quite a scam on the corporations and individuals who thought they were donating money to help distressed communities and the people living there.
Brooks is not the only elected official to find himself in this kind of spot.
If you look a few miles to the north from Brooks’ legislative district, you will find quite a mess in Gwinnett County. A special grand jury once determined that the county commission had paid millions of excess dollars for real estate purchases that benefited influential developers at the expense of taxpayers.
Gwinnett Commissioner Shirley Lasseter pleaded guilty last year to taking a $36,000 bribe in exchange for her support of a proposed development. A local developer pleaded guilty to bribery for giving Lasseter and her son $30,000 in casino chips in exchange for her 2009 vote for a solid waste transfer station.
Another Gwinnett commissioner, Kevin Kenerly, was indicted on a bribery charge involving allegations that he accepted $1 million to secure approval of a land purchase for the benefit of a developer (Kenerly has denied the charge).
Just a few weeks ago, former Sumter County Commissioner Al J. Hurley of Americus was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison after his conviction on charges of attempted extortion and bribery.
Trial evidence showed that Hurley solicited and agreed to accept cash payments in exchange for his promises to influence the award of county work to a contractor.
These are just a few examples. I’m sure the readers of this column could tell me about cozy dealings happening in their part of the state as well.
The temptation of money, as noted above, sometimes is just too powerful to resist.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.