Costly Racial Case Roils DeKalb

Bill Rankin, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 31, 2010

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So far, DeKalb County taxpayers have spent $2.53 million to defend against a long-running discrimination lawsuit, in which three white employees of DeKalb’s parks department claim they were unfairly shunted aside in favor of black employees. A fourth plaintiff, a black man, claims he was punished for opposing the action against the white workers.

The trial concluded on Tuesday afternoon with testimony by former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, who is a defendant, and the case is expected to go to the jury today.

On top of the millions DeKalb has already spent on the case–and the latest accounting was only through January–it likely will have to spend millions more if the county loses. That’s because the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who include former state Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, will ask the court to order the county to pay their fees if their side prevails–in addition to any damages awarded to the plaintiffs.

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The prolonged litigation has been bitterly contested by both sides. The frustration of plaintiffs’ lawyers, who have accused the county of withholding evidence, boiled over Tuesday when they filed an extraordinary motion to strike the county’s defenses, which would leave the jurors with nothing to do but decide how much the county must pay in damages.

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During the trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys have argued that top county officials orchestrated a scheme to force out white managers and replace them with blacks. According to testimony, the number of higher-paid black officials in DeKalb increased by 82 percent from the time Jones took office in January 2001 to August 2005, while the number of higher-paid white officials declined by about 6 percent during the same period.

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When Jones took office, Becky Kelley had worked for DeKalb’s parks department for 25 years and was its director beginning in 1992. She testified that almost from the outset Jones was hostile toward her. During one meeting in his office, she told jurors, Jones jumped out of his chair and stepped toward her.

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She said she was later told by Jones’ executive assistant, Richard Stogner, that she did not understand “the geopolitical situation” in DeKalb and that she was unable to work with powerful black men. Even though Kelley got a stellar job review, she said she believed she was losing her authority to her new black deputy director.

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[An earlier story about this case can be read here.]

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