Fayette GOP censures Hearn, wants new appointee to elections board

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Displeasure with an apparent ethical misstep by Fayette County Commissioner Lee Hearn has stretched beyond giving ammunition to his political opponents.

Now the Fayette County Republican Party is weighing in on the matter, asking the entire commission to rescind the appointment of John Addison Lester III, Hearn’s second cousin, to the Fayette County Board of Elections. All five commissioners are Republicans.

In a letter written on behalf of the local Republicans to Commission Chairman Herb Frady, Attorney James Webb Jr. argues that Hearn’s failure to disclose his familial relationship to Lester immediately prior to the Feb. 24 vote raises some ethical questions.

“The committee feels that this lack of disclosure is inappropriate and breached the standard of ethics the citizens of Fayette County expect from their commissioners,” Webb wrote.

Hearn later apologized for the oversight, acknowledging that it was a mistake, but those comments came a week after Commissioner Steve Brown asked Hearn at the April 6 meeting if it was indeed true that Lester was a relative of his. Hearn replied that it was indeed true, that Lester was his mother’s cousin.

In the letter, Webb also acknowledges that the county’s ethics code does not expressly prohibit Hearn from nominating a relative to the position.

The Fayette Republican Party is not the first to ask the commission to rescind Lester’s appointment and start all over again. However, the party wants the commission to disclose any actual and potential conflicts of interest with a future nominee, including whether the nominee “has a special relationship with any Commissioner,” Webb wrote. “… Where such a relationship exists, the committee asks that the commissioner with the relationship recuse himself and refrain from voting on the nomination.”

Webb’s letter points out that by nature of the 3-2 vote, it could be viewed that Hearn’s vote for Lester was the deciding vote.

“We trust that the commissioners understand how these actions cast a cloud over the entire nomination process and that the recent apology does not go far enough in removing that cloud,” Webb wrote.

Hearn has been under fire from a number of citizens at recent commission meetings because instead of saying Lester was his cousin, Hearn merely said he was a friend he knew from church who was retired and had the time to do the job.

The appointment has raised concern about the potential conflict of interest resulting from an elections board member who is a distant family member of a sitting county commissioner potentially seeking re-election.

The criticism has since extended to Commission Chairman Frady and also Commissioner Robert Horgan, as they joined Hearn in voting for Lester’s appointment, over the “no” votes from commissioners Steve Brown and Allen McCarty.

The Fayette County Board of Elections is charged with supervising all county election matters in the county and also the voter registration process. The board consists of three members: one appointed by the county commission and one each appointed by the Fayette County Republican and Democratic parties.

Several residents have rapped the commission because Lester’s appointment meant that long-serving and experienced elections board member Marilyn Watts was shown the door.

Commissioner Brown said last week that an independent investigation into the appointment should take place, particularly in light of the discovery that Lester owns a controlling interest in a 109-acre parcel near the West Fayetteville Bypass.

That tract fronts along Ga. Highway 54 near Tyrone Road and is zoned for residential development: part of it is R-70 with minimum lot sizes of two acres each; the other portion is zoned agriculture reserve which has minimum lot sizes of five acres each.

Brown has said the tie between Hearn, Lester and the tract of land is a “direct link” showing the commission’s motivation behind construction of the West Bypass, part of which is now known as Veterans Parkway.

Brown and fellow commissioner Allen McCarty have pledged to scuttle the West Fayetteville Bypass, charging that it is being built to further the interest of private developers.

The bypass, once complete, will stretch from Ga. Highway 85 south at Harp Road up to Ga. Highway 54 at Huiet Road, ending at the intersection of Ga. Highway 92 north and West Bridge Road.