East Cobb attorney Gary Pelphrey, who filed the complaint, alleged misconduct over how Lee handled the deal between the county and Atlanta Braves to build a $672 million stadium near Cumberland Mall.
The seven-member ethics board ruled that Pelphrey’s claim failed to meet the legal threshold to require a hearing on his allegations.
Lee said the board’s findings were not surprising.
“I am very pleased with the outcome that all the accusations were found to be baseless, and it was my belief that this would occur because I truly believe that the charges were baseless,” Lee said.
This is the second ethics complaint filed against Lee over the Braves’ deal and the second to be thrown out.
Pelphrey accused Lee of violating the Georgia Open Meetings law by denying public participation in the deal. Pelphrey said Lee briefed commissioners in sets of two to avoid holding a public meeting.
Pelphrey was hoping the board would agree to investigate Lee to consider whether he was guilty of violating the ethics code.
“The matter of the Braves coming to Cobb County was kept very closely held, and nothing was leaked to the citizens of Cobb County,” Pelphrey said at the hearing.
Pelphrey accused Lee of nine different violations of the county’s ethics code.
The board denied to further investigate the allegations, saying Pelphrey did not have enough evidence to prove Lee violated the law or the code of ethics in each case, Chairman Lt. Col. Mike Patellis of east Cobb said.
“When you say, ‘This is wrong,’ you have to be able to say, ‘And, this is why,’” Patellis said. “And, we didn’t have any of that here.”
The Rev. Walter Moon of Marietta, another board member, said the violations of ethics that Pelphrey alleged were vague and unclear, leaving the board with no way to pursue the allegations.
“I find no credible evidence to back up the statements that you’ve been making,” Moon said to Pelphrey during the meeting.
Pelphrey said he was disappointed in the board because he didn’t think it addressed ethical issues, just legal ones. He said the board should have looked beyond the legality of what Lee did to see if it was unethical.
“(Lee) did in fact violate the oath he took, which was to represent the people, and that’s the violation I bring forth,” he said.
Pelphrey said after the meeting that the board made up its own rules as it went along.
“It seems to me that they came here with the notion of clearing the decks — and they did,” he said.
Several board members told Pelphrey during the meeting that the group’s decision was constrained by the ethics code that has been passed and approved by the county.
The board spent hours holding discussion around each of the nine complaints Pelphrey made against Lee, but voted against investigating each one after much back and forth.
All members of the ethics board were present at the meeting, which includes Patellis; Moon; Deborah King of south Cobb, an adjunct professor at Shorter University; retired businessman Richard Ziober of east Cobb; Marietta attorney Doug Shaddix of west Cobb; Darrell Sutton, who was appointed to the ethics board by the Cobb Bar Association, and attorney Angeline Mathis.
The board’s attorney at the meeting was Robert Grayson in place of Lynn Rainey. Rainey, who is also the attorney for the Cumberland Community Improvement District, recused himself because the district has committed $10 million to the stadium project and he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In April, the board also rejected a complaint against four of the five commissioners brought by Larry Savage, a retired east Cobb businessman in a vote of 6-1, with Moon opposed.
Before the Tuesday night vote, Savage said he didn’t expect anything but rejection from the ethics board in response to this second complaint.
“My experience a few weeks ago — I’ll be polite and say — it was disappointing,” Savage said. “The ethics board is not interested in getting involved in a quagmire with the board commissioners.”
Savage said he thinks the board is caught in a political trap.
“There’s just so much pressure coming down on the folks to make it go, and I think everyone gets the feeling of: we don’t want to be the ones to stand in the way of progress,” Savage said.