For weeks, Clayton County elected officials, department heads, and members of metro Atlanta’s press corps have been getting e-mails filled with political smears, character assassinations, hot tips, unsubstantiated allegations, and full-on blast-mode rage.
Some purport to be from one or more people hiding behind pseudonyms (e.g., anti-Hill John David, pro-Hill Sherrad Frinks) and casting bait upon the political waters. Others come directly from elected officials’ county e-mail accounts (Commissioners Felicia Franklin, Alieka Anderson, and DeMont Davis, who questioned that use of county e-mail). Altogether, they paint a disturbing picture of a power struggle and a climate of intimidation for county employees.
They also raise important questions:
- If employers cannot access an exonerated record of charges under the First Offenders Act, but law enforcement officials can, and assuming that a stranger is requesting information about an alleged “convicted felon,” how would that person know to ask about a previous criminal charge that had been wiped out under the act?
- Are unauthorized criminal background checks being run through GCIC? If so, by whom? At whose request?
- Why would a personnel matter involving a rank-and-file county employee be subject to public scrutiny, including multiple e-mails from elected officials over days to other department heads and to reporters, prior to any civil service proceedings?
You’ve got mail
The cloak-and-dagger e-mails started during the last election cycle, as candidates allied with suspended Sheriff Victor Hill and then-federally-indicted political consultant Mitzi Bickers vied for control of the Board of Commissioners. During that race, anonymous robocalls falsely stated that District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis and his former business partner were convicted felons.
Davis was exonerated years ago under Georgia’s First Offender Act. He has no felony criminal record to retrieve.
In this latest e-mail chain, District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin demanded to know how Chairman Jeff Turner’s son, Brandon, came to work for the county as a Parks and Recreation maintenance employee. Franklin forwarded what appeared to be an Open Records Request from a Michell(e) Williams falsely stating that Brandon Turner is a “convicted felon,” a claim that was inserted in the header and repeated whenever anyone hit “reply all.” The requestor asked for Brandon Turner’s personnel file.
The Clayton Crescent e-mailed Michell(e) Williams directly at the address in the header but has received no response as of press time. Attempts to reach Brandon Turner directly for comment also have been unsuccessful.
In Brandon Turner’s case, the name used by the person who filed an ORR for his personnel file—like Sherrad Frink and John David—does not appear to be the name of a person who exists in real life. None of the three appear to have any social media or other digital footprint, other than Gmail addresses. Neither Frink nor Williams have responded to The Clayton Crescent’s requests for comment and to verify their identities. David did respond but declined to state who they really are, hinting that their voice might give them away.
One “John David” e-mail issued on the eve of the last election claimed Anderson and District 4 candidate Scott were being backed by Hill and that “[t]heir first order of business will be to remove” CFO Ramona Bivins, COO Detrick Stanford, Police Chief Kevin Roberts, Community Development Director Patrick Ejike, Parks and Recreation Director Troy Hodges, Chief Strategy Officer Chalonda Smith, and Human Resources Director Pamela Ambles.
“Victor, Alieka, Janice, Felicia & Mitzi have been strategizing how to take over Clayton County,” John David alleged. “As we know, Victor wants one form of law enforcement. The plan is to remove Chief Roberts and the three girls [sic] will vote in Victor’s pick and his pick will bring in his loyal S.O. staff to PD and he will have control of both agencies. If you think only 7 people had their civil rights violated, then you wait until this move happens.”
Shortly after Anderson was reelected and Scott lost to Davis, a new 3-2 majority led by Franklin and including Anderson and Hambrick, fired Bivins with no reasons given and removed Jeff Turner’s authority to sign off on no-bid contracts under $74,999.
Then Franklin and Anderson “dragged” Clayton County Human Resources Director Pamela Ambles in public, looping in local investigative and Clayton County beat reporters, over anonymous and demonstrably false allegations about Chairman Jeff Turner’s son.
Over the course of several days, often with multiple e-mails and responses occurring in a single day (including early in the morning and late at night, well outside of business hours), Franklin repeatedly excoriated Ambles before colleagues, elected officials, and local news reporters.
Franklin sent the e-mails to Michell(e) Williams and cc’d them to Ambles; Chairman Turner; Commissioners DeMont Davis, Gail Hambrick and Alieka Anderson; Chief Operating Officer Detrick Stanford; Clayton County Police Chief Kevin Roberts and Deputy Chief Bruce Parks; The Clayton Crescent; the newstip desk, Richard Belcher, and Tom Jones at WSB-TV; CBS46; and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Leon Stafford.
The first e-mail came from Williams in the form of an Open Records Request, apparently via e-mail, and included a link to an October 1, 2012 story from the Henry Herald about Brandon Turner’s arrest, at age 17, allegedly while he was on probation.
Williams falsely stated that “Brandon D’Angelo Turner is a convicted felon who was arrested again before his father took office for a felony probation violation [sic],” then repeated the false claim in a request for all documents showing who had hired him “despite being a convicted felon.”
A charge does not equal a conviction
The Henry Herald article does not confirm that Brandon Turner is a “convicted felon.” The article by Kathy Jefcoats states, “According to Henry County court records, the robbery charge was reduced to [misdemeanor] theft by taking and Turner was allowed to plead guilty under the First Offender Act. His 12-month probated sentenced was suspended upon payment of $112 restitution. The conviction was discharged in October 2009.”
To be precise, he was not convicted of the charge. He had been arrested for and charged with an alleged “felony probation violation.” A probation officer alleged that Decatur Police had charged Brandon Turner in 2011 with possessing less than an ounce of marijuana and crossing a state or county guard line with weapons, drugs, or intoxicants without consent. The Clayton Crescent did not find any record of those alleged charges in Dekalb County’s online court records. Ultimately, Henry County court records show that the case expired and was dismissed in October 2013.
Brandon Turner, then a minor, also was never adjudicated as guilty and never convicted of any of the charges from 2008 related to the Open Records Request, and was sentenced under the First Offender Act. His charges were eligible for “discharge without adjudication of guilt in accordance with the provisions of the First Offenders Act (OCGA § 42-8-60 et seq.).”
Under Georgia’s First Offender Act, anyone who successfully completes conditions imposed by a judge is not convicted of the charge—and that charge is sealed from both GCIC criminal history and, generally speaking, employer searches. Even though law enforcement officials can see the charge, employers can’t.
And a charge is not a conviction.
“Shall not be considered to have a criminal conviction”
Every page of the 2008 and 2013 case files bears the following stamp:
“Discharge filed completely exonerates the defendant of any criminal purpose and shall not affect any of his or her civil rights or liberties, except for registration requirements under the state sexual offender registry and except with regard to employment as specified in Code Section 42-8-63.1; and the defendant shall not be considered to have a criminal conviction. O.C.G.A. 42-8-60. Entered by TLT on date: 10/14/2008.”
One would not have to go to the courthouse, or even drill down on the public-facing website, to see that Brandon Turner has no felony convictions in Henry County. A check of online court docket records show that his charges were discharged under Georgia’s First Offender Act, as indicated by the checkboxes on the right column:
Civil service protections
According to Clayton County’s Human Resources website, “The Civil Service Act created a system of personnel administration for Clayton County Board of Commissioners. Civil Service protected employees are provided due process under the Civil Service System. New full-time employees hired in Civil Service positions must serve a 12-month probationary period before obtaining Civil Service Status. Some public safety employees serve an 18-month probationary period.”
The purpose of a civil service system is to protect county employees from becoming political targets. Civil service employees cannot be fired at will—they only can be fired for cause—and they have the right to a hearing first.
The Clayton Crescent has sought clarification from Franklin, in a separate e-mail, on specific details of the exchange, as well as details about a complaint she filed last year against former CFO Ramona Bivins, and Franklin’s relationship with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office. As of press time, Franklin had not responded to The Clayton Crescent’s questions. (Bivins, whose contract Franklin, Anderson, and Hambrick voted to terminate without giving any public reason, was an appointed department head, not a protected civil service employee. Last week, she was hired as Douglas County’s new CFO.)
However, in another e-mail in the chain, Franklin made it clear that she was unhappy about Jeff Turner having told a reporter he wanted to get Bickers out of the county’s employ quickly after her federal conviction.
Here’s a synopsis of the lengthy e-mail chain:
Tuesday, July 19, 8:34 a.m.: Michell Williams, whose email was listed as firstname.lastname@example.org, sends an Open Records Request (the recipient’s name is not listed), asking for Brandon Turner’s personnel file and falsely stating that “Brandon D’Angelo Turner is a convicted felon.”
Tuesday, July 19, 11:14 a.m.: Commissioner Felicia Franklin forwards Williams’ e-mail to Williams, cc’ing Ambles, Commissioner DeMont Davis, Commissioner Gail Hambrick, Commissioner Alieka Anderson, Chairman Jeffrey Turner, Chief Operating Officer Detrick Stanford, another COO county e-mail address, Police Chief Kevin Roberts, Deputy Police Chief Bruce Parks, The Clayton Crescent’s Robin Kemp, general news e-mail addresses for WSB-TV and CBS46, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Leon Stafford, and WSB-TV’s Tom Jones and Richard Belcher. The subject line, which was repeated throughout the e-mail thread, read “Re: EXTERNAL: Chairman Turner hires his convicted felon son to work for county government.” (Ambles later wrote that Parks and Recreation Director Troy Hodges, not Jeff Turner, had hired Brandon Turner.)
Franklin wrote, “HR Director Ambles this is not the first open records request concerning this matter that I have seen. Did you respond to the first one? If so what was your response? Was a background check done on this hire and if not why wasn’t it done? Did you have knowledge of this hire? Did you approve this hire and if not who did? This is a request for answers to my questions to be submitted my [sic] by close of business today.”
Tuesday, July 19, 11:17 a.m.: Ambles replies, “Good Morning, Commissioner Franklin. Allow me to do due diligence to answer your questions in detail. As requested you will have answers from Human Resources by close of business. Thank you for contacting me.”
Tuesday, July 19, 5:28 p.m.: Franklin replies, “Director Pam Ambles, Per your email you stated that you would take due diligence to have answers for the board and I by the close of business today. It is now after 5:00PM and we have not received your response. Why? When provided a directive with a timeline you are to meet that deadline without excuse. If there is a valid reason you cannot meet the deadline of your assignment you should make contact to advise why you cannot complete the assignment and advise when the assignment will be completed.”
Tuesday, July 19, 5:33 p.m.: Ambles replies, “Commissioner, Thank you for the follow-up. I just sent the information. I thought I had hit send before leaving earlier for a meeting; it was still in que. [sic] Please advise if you did not receive it.”
Wednesday, July 20, 6:50 a.m.: Franklin tells Ambles, “Your answers to my questions are non direct and evasive.” She sends Ambles a list of questions about whether Brandon Turner had undergone a background check, who had hired him, and asked, “Did you ask Brandon Turner’s department director that hired him if they were aware that Brandon Turner is a convicted felon?” (Henry County court records show Brandon Turner is not a convicted felon.)
Wednesday, July 20, 12:59 p.m.: Ambles replies, “Commissioner Franklin, Upon review of my answers to you, I’m in agreement that I could have been more direct. Please know that it was not my intention to be evasive. Human Resources has to operate with the highest degree of transparency, integrity, honesty, and equity in all cases regardless of who may be involved. For me, there is no consideration of person, position, tenure, or any other factors other than documentation of evidence. It is for this reason, I researched and requested documentation regarding this issue.”
Ambles continued: “I have reviewed documentation that indicates that Brandon D’Angelo Turner was exonerated of all charges. The charges were dismissed and the exoneration does not affect any of his civil rights and liberties and not be considered as having a criminal eviction OCGA 42-8-82. The document is dated 10-7-09.
“Below in red are answers to your questions. As my Commissioner of District 3, I appreciate your efforts to ensure we’re operating above board and always welcome the opportunity to assist you.”
Here is a copy of Franklin’s questions and Ambles’ answers (in bold):
Was a background check completed on Brandon Turner? Yes or no? NO
Who was responsible for hiring Brandon Turner? Civil Service Rule 7.203 – The Department Head has the authority to select candidates for employment provided they meet the hiring criteria such as passing a physical/drug screen and meeting eligibility to work criteria. A motor vehicle report is pulled to mitigate risk, especially for those whose job requires them to travel for County business.
Who is Brandon Turner’s department director? Director Troy Hodges
Did you ask Brandon Turner’s department director that hired him if they were aware that Brandon Turner is a convicted felon? NO
Did you ask his department director if they run background checks on all of their hires? Per current practice, background checks are conducted based on the nature of the job. Of course background checks, are automatic for public safety and law enforcement. Background checks are also conducted for positions that work with children. Our current practice aligns with the guidance given by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) – see below for more information. Therefore, the direct answer to your question is NO.
Do we do background checks on all new hires? If not why? NO. Above-mentioned is current practice. See below for why.
If department directors don’t do background checks on all new hires, what is your plan to find out how many convicted felons we have employed unknowingly to limit our level of exposure to liability? We have to be very careful. There are federal protections for applicants with a criminal record. One such protection is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act . This law protects applicants and employees from every aspect of employment from cradle to grave. There is guidance from the EEOC regarding screening out applicants with a criminal record who pose a serious risk to the organization: the gravity of the offense; how much time has passed since the offense or sentence; the nature of the job. Mr. Turner was hired in an entry-level Park Maintenance Worker position in 2018 (nature of job). The documentation of exoneration is dated 2009 (time passed since offense). Based on hiring practice and EEOC guidance, a review of Mr. Turner’s personnel file does not reflect a background check.
In your email you said Human Resources focuses on compliance with EEO laws. Does this mean as HR Director you bear no responsibility in seeing to it that the hiring policy is followed by all directors to include background checks? I, Pamela R. Ambles, Human Resources Director for Clayton County Board of Commissioners, is responsible for making sure our hiring practice aligns with EEO laws, Civil Service Rules, and best practices. Current practice, which aligns with EEOC guidelines and Civil Service Rules, is being followed.
Now that you and our entire board has been made aware that Brandon D’Angelo Turner is a convicted felon, as the HR Director what actions are you going to present to the Board to correct this issue? As stated above, current hiring practice aligns with the expectations of the EEOC and Civil Service Rules. A blanket hiring practice to exclude convicted felons and those with criminal records could run afoul of the EEOC’s guidelines, Title VIII, and other federal protections. Additionally, my research, shows that Brandon De’Angelo Turner is not recognized as a convicted felon.
Provide direct simple answers to these questions by close of buisness today. Provided 2:58 P.M.
Wednesday, July 20, 10:32 p.m.: Franklin replies, implying that Ambles is taking part in a coverup and is in a “precarious position,” alleging that Brandon Turner posed a threat to children in the parks, and stating, “You cannot get arrested for felony probation violation unless you were convicted of a felony.” Franklin added:
“Also let’s be very careful with this. You stated you reviewed documents that exonerated Brandon Tuner. What kind of documents did you review? Did this document exonerate him from all charges? The article linked in the open records email request stated that Brandon Turner was arrested right before his father took office for a felony probation violation. You cannot get arrested for felony probation violation unless you were convicted of a felony. Are you saying that you reviewed court documents that Brandon Turner’s convictions were overturned by the court of appeals? I do not want you to attach the documents you reviewed to this email to protect Brandon Turner’s privacy, but this document you reviewed you need to provide to an independent attorney, with criminal expertise, one who was never under the former chain of command to the Chairman to rule out any conflict. The board will advise you who that independent attorney will be. Director Ambles, again I understand you are in a precarious position since Brandon Turner’s father is Chairman Turner, because you used to answer directly to the Chairman before the majority of the board voted for restructuring where you now answer to the entire board. However not providing all of the facts is a form of deception which can result in disciplinary actions against you. If you had knowledge of this hiring and do not disclose it during this investigation that is deception. If you have knowledge that the Chairman requested his son to be hired and have his background check waived and you do not disclose that during this investigation you are being deceptive. If any of what I have just described is the case, state so now, so that the board does not find out to the contrary during this investigation. Again let me warn you to give this board all of the facts in your next email and leave nothing unanswered. Your response will need to be provided by close of business tomorrow.“
Franklin did not state whether Brandon Turner’s privacy had been violated by a series of e-mails, shared across county departments and with the news media, that falsely asserted he was a convicted felon.
July 21, 2022: The e-mail salvos continued, with the original requestor and Anderson also chiming in to order Ambles to produce responsive records:
Thursday, July 21, 5:18 p.m.: District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis asks Franklin why she had taken on this inquiry without the rest of the board’s approval, adding that Brandon Turner “has worked for the county for several years without any reported concerns,” and that he was concerned about “malevolently attacking and singling out ANY employee of the County,” especially in front of the media:
“Pursuant to your directives at the Board of Commissioners meeting on June 7, 2022, all county business is to be reviewed, evaluated and action executed by the board as a body and individual Commissioners do not have the authority to unilaterally initiate action on behalf of matters which are under the boards jurisdiction. I must express concerns of malevolently attacking and singling out ANY employee of the County. As a Commissioner, we have a duty to ensure that all of our employees are treated fairly and with respect. Each Commissioner has a responsibility and duty to set the example. Furthermore, communications negatively impacting our employees to various recipients, including the media, is extremely disappointing. I would like to understand your position on the appropriateness of such independent communications by a member of the Board of Commissioners. I look forward to your prompt reply.”
Friday, July 22, 12:37 a.m.: Franklin replies to Davis, making note of his own First Offender Act exoneration:
“Commisioner Davis let me express that I see your sensitivity to this matter understanding that you had your criminal history revealed to the everyone despite a program that was designed to keep it from going public. I shared and empathized with your embarrassment during that time. However this is a very different situation. Our county webpage of which I am attaching examples clearly indicates that we require background checks on EVERY position to include part time employees. If we don’t require this for everyone, why is it on our webpage? Do you think the Chairman should have allowed his son not to have a background check done like everyone else?”
Franklin then challenged Jeff Turner’s comment about convicted felon Mitzi Bickers‘ resignation from the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office after she was found guilty on nine of 12 federal counts related to the Atlanta City Hall contract scandal. Bickers was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, three counts of money laundering, four counts of wire fraud, and one count of making false statements/falsifying tax returns. She was acquitted of one count each of of conspiracy to commit bribery, bribery, and witness tampering. Bickers’ sentencing was pushed back from July 12 to September 8; her attorney says she plans to appeal.
Franklin told Davis: “Let me remind you that just recently Chairman Turner got on the news once an employee of the sheriffs office was convicted of a felony and told the media that we are going to hurry up and get her on up out of here…. An employee he no ability to hire or fire. If he feels that way about convicted felons, why isn’t he saying anything about getting his son out of here? Did you ‘express concerns’ that the Chairman was ‘malevolently attacking and singling out’ that employee of the county? Is this the ‘responsibility and duty’ that ‘each commissioner’ has that you are talking about? This is hypocrisy at its worse [sic] and I am extremely disappointed.”
Friday, July 22, 7:31 a.m.: Ambles e-mailed the thread, while adding staff attorney India Keefover, that “Chairman Turner never asked me to waive Brandon Turner’s background check” and that Human Resources Compensation/Classification Manager Carol Lowe was reviewing Brandon Turner’s file, which included a 2018 background check:
“The fundamental question for Human Resources is was Brandon Turner allowed concessions in the hiring process that was not afforded to other candidates. From a human resources’ perspective this would be a major problem. Clayton County current practice for obtaining background checks is as I’ve explained before: the County does not have a blanket policy in place not to hire employees with criminal records or convicted felonies per federal guidelines. Each position and applicant is evaluated based on the individual circumstances surrounding the position and criminal history. To answer Human Resources’ fundamental question, I directed Human Resources Compensation/ Classification Manager Carol Lowe to pull and review the personnel files of Parks Maintenance Workers hired between 2017 to current. Mr. Turner was hired on 2/17/18. Ms. Lowe’s detailed review revealed that the Parks Maintenance Workers classification does in fact require a criminal background check. Twenty-two Park Maintenance Workers were hired by Clayton County between 2017 to current. In Section 6 of each of the personnel files are a MVR, Criminal History Consent Form, and a Background Report. A background check was conducted on Brandon Turner. Human Resources received the report on February 12, 2018. My initial responses focused on the fact that Chairman Turner never asked me to waive Brandon Turner’s background check and trying to explain our current process, which is stated above; however, Manager Lowe pulled the files to ensure consistency in the hiring process. Ms. Lowe and her team reviews employment documents and will alert me to any issues that need to be addressed. There were no issues identified with Mr. Turner’s employment documents. My mistake is not bringing Ms. Lowe into the discussion initially; had I done this, it would have saved time and energy for everyone involved. If additional information is needed from me, please let me know.”
Friday, July 22, 11:36 a.m.: Franklin told Ambles, “H R Director Pam Ambles, have Carol Lowe provide the 2018 report you are referencing and the personnel file of Brandon Turner in question to the Board of Commissioners during executive season on 08/02/2022.”
Executive sessions are closed to the public and involve sensitive legal matters—like personnel. Executive session minutes are not public records, but a judge can review them in chambers. Generally, a low-level government employee’s personnel matters would not be aired out in an online e-mail forum that includes members of the news media.
Friday, July 22: Ambles acknowledged receipt of Franklin’s e-mail.
Friday, July 22, 2:59 p.m.: Williams told Ambles, “As much as I have enjoyed and learned from all of your back and forth with the commissioners, you have still failed to send what I requested through the open records act. Now that you have admitted that you could have saved time and energy for everyone involved by just getting the information requested of you, can you please just send me Brandon Turner’s personnel file?”
Friday, July 22, 3:15 p.m.: Ambles replied to Williams, “Happy Friday, Ms. Williams. Per the provisions of the Open Records Act, your response dated Tuesday, July 19th required a response from Human Resources by today, July 22nd. This response is a mandatory acknowledgment of your open records request. Yesterday, I acknowledged your request as being received. The personnel file has been copied and is ready to be sent; however, there are exemptions within the provisions of the Open Records Act. Generally, Human Resources does not release Section 6 of an employee’s personnel file in response to an open records request. This morning, I contacted Staff Attorney India Keefover to confirm exemptions so I can be sure that Clayton County is not releasing information that we should not. I’m waiting for a response from Ms. Keefover. Ms. Keefover is copied on this email to ensure transparency and confirmation of my response to you. Thank you.”
Friday, July 22, 4:18 p.m.: Keefover replied to Williams and Ambles, cc’ing the entire chain, explaining (with code citations) that Ambles’ ORR explanation had been correct. (Her e-mail signature contained the standard warning about privileged communications, but was directed to the entire thread, including news media recipients.)
Friday, July 22, 4:49 p.m.: Ambles told Williams, “Thank you for giving Human Resources the opportunity to assist you. Human Resources Manager Carol Lowe is sending the file directly to you as the requestor of the open records request. The request is being provided per the provisions of the Georgia Open Records Act in accordance with guidance provided by Staff Attorney India Keefover as reflect in the email below. Should I be able to assist you again, please don’t hesitate to let me know. Have a great weekend.”
No explanation from Franklin
As a matter of due diligence, The Clayton Crescent ran its own Georgia felon check on Brandon Turner. One person with a similar name came up. We checked that name against the Georgia Department of Corrections inmate records and returned three individuals using the name Brandon Turner.
None of those men were the Brandon Turner who is a Clayton County employee.
On Thursday afternoon, the Clayton Crescent asked Franklin why she had sent the e-mails to other elected and appointed officials, rather than discussing the matter in house, and whether she thought that created any potential liability for the county. We also asked Franklin whether she had sought background investigations of other county employees and, if so, who had run those background checks. Franklin had not responded to The Clayton Crescent’s questions as of Tuesday afternoon.
Franklin, Jeff Turner, and other county officials were at a convention in Denver, CO over the weekend. Jeff Turner told The Clayton Crescent on Friday that he would have more to say about the matter in the coming days.