The 35 criminal counts filed against Dwight Brown, former CEO of the Cobb EMC, accuse the once-powerful executive of conspiring to steal millions of dollars from the 200,000-member electric co-op.
The list of alleged crimes is stunning, as is the amount of money that Brown is said to have diverted into his own hands. Reading the indictment is a little too much like reading the plot line to a John Grisham novel, in which powerful people in a community conspire to perpetrate and cover up a major scam, and to intimidate their critics into silence.
Of course, it’s impossible to know how the charges in the indictment will be resolved. A jury will have to hear the case and decide, and as we were reminded in the Casey Anthony murder trial, predicting how a jury will weigh complicated evidence is a job for the foolhardy.
Brown’s attorney, former Gov. Roy Barnes, claims that his client is innocent and expresses amazement that Brown has even been charged. As Barnes describes it, Brown stayed within the law, even as he interwove Cobb EMC’s business with his own private profit-making efforts.
Perhaps so. Perhaps not.
Matters of right and wrong, however, can be easier to clarify than matters of legality and illegality. And in this case, the means by which Brown seized and held control of the co-op for so long were flat-out wrong and unethical.
If Barnes is correct — if those tactics turn out to have been legal as well as wrong — legislators have an obligation to tighten state law to prevent actions such in the future. Because they just don’t pass the smell test.
Issues of criminality aside, it is clear that Brown abused his authority for his own personal gain, enlisting a complacent board of directors to do his bidding and ask no questions. He has behaved not as a public servant obligated to protect the interests of co-op members, but as if he himself were the co-op proprietor, entitled to handle affairs as he wished. He did not serve, he ruled.
In fact, the true scope of Brown’s arrogance did not publicly emerge until after a 2007 AJC investigation into his business arrangements with the co-op. When co-op members began to ask uncomfortable questions and demand answers, Brown tried to silence them. When members turned to the courts to get answers and information that they were due by law, Brown used co-op coffers to fund a legal fight against them.
Eventually, in 2008, Brown and his board of directors were forced to accept a settlement of the civil action filed against them. As part of the settlement, the co-op was required to hold new board elections for at least four seats within 120 days.
Today, in 2011, those elections have yet to take place, even though every current director is by now serving an expired term. Instead, Brown and his board tried to extend their dictatorial control by changing co-op bylaws regarding elections, touching off yet another long legal fight. That battle ended last month, when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled 6-1 against Brown and his board.
As another part of the 2008 settlement, Brown had agreed to step down as CEO no later than Feb. 28, 2011 and “not seek an extension of his employment with Cobb EMC.” Brown did retire as required, technically abiding by the settlement. But his board of directors immediately announced that it was rehiring their indicted leader, claiming it could find no suitable candidate other than their indicted CEO.
Cobb Superior Court Judge Stephen Schuster put an end to that bit of deviousness last month, ruling that Brown could not be rehired. And in what may be an ominous sign of judicial impatience, he also ordered the 10 current board members to appear in his courtroom at 9 a.m. on Aug. 12.
Criminal or not, it’s hard to exaggerate how brazen and arrogant the former CEO and his close circle of supporters have been through all this. If their behavior is not illegal, it ought to be.
– Jay Bookman