Residents file recall petition against Stonecrest mayor over financial scandals

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210415-Stonecrest-Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary holds a press conference at city hall on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Zachary Hansen

He’s implicated in multiple financial scandals, including mismanaging federal COVID-19 relief funds, writing unapproved checks and misusing a city-issued purchasing card

A recall petition with more than 100 signatures was filed Wednesday afternoon in an effort to remove Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary from office over his involvement in multiple financial scandals.

Stonecrest resident Richard Stone sponsored the petition, which alleges the mayor’s behavior warrants his removal before his term ends in 2023. Lary is implicated in an investigative report that found strong evidence of mismanagement within the city’s federal pandemic relief fund program, which also appears to have been a kickback scheme. The mayor is also accused of abusing his city-issued purchasing card, entering improper contracts on behalf of the city and writing unapproved checks using city funds.

Stone’s petition is the first step in a complicated process required to recall an elected official.

Lary, who has not been charged with any crimes or ethical violations, has repeatedly denied the allegations against him and told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday morning that the recall effort is politically motivated.

“Those allegations are baseless and politically motivated by persons who want to be mayor but did not want to face me in a fair and public election,” he said in a text message.

Stone, a reverend at Unity In Faith Baptist Church, also ran an unsuccessful campaign for a Stonecrest council seat in 2017. Stone, who gathered 110 signatures for the recall, told the AJC that city residents have to try something.

“He’s still manipulating the things that happen within the city,” Stone said. “We’re hopeful that we can get this mayor out of here, and we’re hopeful that we can save this city if it’s worth saving.”
The allegations

After questions were raised earlier this year about how Stonecrest had distributed $6.2 million in federal relief money, the city attorney reported on April 12 that there was evidence the funds had been misused. Lary, who is accused of giving his church an unsolicited $150,000 grant award, was among those implicated in the report, which prompted several city employees to be fired and replaced this spring.

Three days later, Lary announced he would begin an indefinite paid medical leave at a news conference where he refuted the investigation’s findings.

City Attorney Winston Denmark’s investigation found evidence of a kickback scheme in the city’s small business and nonprofit grant programs. The City Council gave Denmark approval to continue his investigation, but no updates have been provided since the end of April.

Acting City Manager Janice Allen Jackson told the AJC this week that businesses and nonprofits that received awards are not being asked to return them. She said she was “not at liberty to discuss” other details regarding the investigation.

In addition, a third-party audit into the city’s purchasing card program found widespread misuse, leading the council to revamp the program and revoke Lary’s card.

While on leave, Lary tried to pay $100,000 to a newly formed Nevada company using funds from the Stonecrest Housing Authority. The funds were returned to the housing authority’s bank account the next day with little explanation. Soon after, the council revoked Lary’s check-writing privileges and took steps to make the housing authority more autonomous.

Lary returned from medical leave at the beginning of August, but he’s kept a low profile. Aside from signing onto mandatory city meetings and attending a statewide convention for elected officials, he has not spoken about the complaints against him publicly.

While Stonecrest was only founded in 2017, Stone has lived in the area for more than a decade. He’s involved with an activist group called Citizens for Accountable Government in Stonecrest, and he decided to pursue the recall petition once Lary returned to office earlier this month.

“It didn’t look like anybody else was going to try and deal with the mayor at all,” Stone said. “I said, ‘Fine. We’ll try and do what we can do.’”

Recalls rarely succeed

The recall process begins with a formal petition with at least 100 signatures. County election officials must verify that each signee was registered to vote in Stonecrest when Lary was last elected in 2019.

If the first batch of petition signatures are deemed valid, organizers must next collect signatures from at least 30% of registered voters in Stonecrest — a much taller task. That would require at least 12,204 signatures, which is nearly triple the number of people who voted in the city’s 2019 mayor’s race. If Stone is able to get enough signatures, it will then force a recall election, which would require a majority vote to remove Lary.

While multiple recall efforts have gained attention in Georgia over the past few years, they often stall out. Left-leaning activists have launched multiple efforts to recall Gov. Brian Kemp since his election, and Republicans attempted to circulate a petition to recall Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger following the 2020 election.

Local recalls have had a little more success. In 2019, Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland resigned over racist comments regarding a Black candidate for City Council among other alleged ethics violations. Voters in Hoschton, a small city northeast of Gwinnett County, gathered enough signatures to force a recall election, but both officials resigned before it took place.

A city councilman from the tiny South Georgia city of Blackshear, Shawn Godwin, was recalled in December over his initial opposition to the hiring of a city clerk candidate in addition to open meeting violations, the Blackshear Times reported.

Besides the recall process, elected officials can be removed from office if they are convicted of a felony. The governor has the authority to suspend elected officials who have been indicted. Kemp recently suspended Waynesboro Mayor Gregory Carswell over fraud, theft and forgery charges.

It’s unknown whether federal authorities are investigating allegations about mismanagement of pandemic funds in Stonecrest, which involves other former city employees as well as the mayor. An FBI spokesman said the agency will not confirm or deny active investigations, and a Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment.

Stone said residents have formed a committee to strategize on how to collect enough signatures to complete the recall effort. State law requires them to collect the signatures within 45 days or the effort expires.

Stone said they’re considering setting up a petition-signing drive-thru, similar to COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites.

“We think it’s feasible,” he said.

State requirements for a recall election

• The grounds for recalling a public official include violation of the oath of office, misconduct, failure to perform lawful duties, misappropriating funds, and “acts of malfeasance.”

• The recall effort must have at least 100 “sponsors,” who were registered voters during the most recent election.

• A judge then verifies the 100 signatures and determines “whether probable cause exists to believe that such alleged fact or facts are true.” The burden of proof rests on the parties bringing the petition to prove probable cause.

• If the judge allows the petition to continue, the petition sponsors must collect signatures from 30% of registered voters in that city or county to trigger a recall election. They have 45 days to collect the signatures.

• If a majority of voters in a recall election vote to approve, the elected official is immediately removed from office.

Read the original story on AJC.com.