Donald Trump-loving State Rep. Vernon Jones is scheduled to speak tonight at the Republican convention. Apparently, he’s the only Georgian to take a microphone. But how much do Republicans know about the man? What do they care? Feel the Vern! MAGA!
The timing of Jones’s endorsement of Trump, coming before the Democratic primary, was interesting. What it did was allow him to step onto the GOP stage before the Democratic door hit him on his way out.
And the door was about to slam hard. Although recent media coverage hasn’t mentioned it, Jones faced disqualification from the Democratic Primary ballot. Jones had been running for re-election to House District 91 in DeKalb and Rockdale counties when a DeKalb voter filed a residency challenge to his candidacy. She hired a first-rate lawyer and compiled a compelling case that Jones lived in Atlanta, in House District 89, and hadn’t lived at his Lithonia voting address for nearly two decades. At the time it was filed, Jones called the challenge “baseless and without merit.”
Distraction time: saying the loud part quietly
As the challenge moved toward a hearing, Jones began to kick up sand. He endorsed Trump, endured (or gloried in) a Democratic backlash, and said he would resign his House seat, There was a problem with that plan, however: It left his legal issue unresolved. To make the challenge go away, he had to quit the race. He then un-resigned his seat and submitted a short non-explanatory letter to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger withdrawing his candidacy. This left his challenger, Rhonda Taylor, alone on the ballot and the Representative-elect, since there’s no Republican candidate in the heavily (+44) Democratic district.
The distraction worked. Angry Democrats sought retribution for what they saw as an act of treason, and for the most part, the media played along, covering the partisan soap opera and largely ignoring the challenge.
You can read the challenge to Jones’s residency at the bottom of this post.
Some history: Like Trump, Jones doesn’t play well with others
Jones is a former CEO of DeKalb County, and he has a contentious reputation. He’s often described as divisive, negative–even Trumpian (he’s an NRA guy and somewhat reactionary on immigration, environmental, and LGBTQ issues).
He’s also known for not playing well with others. During this year’s fraught negotiations on ethics legislation, Jones called fellow DeKalb Rep. Michael Wilensky (D-Dunwoody) “chickenshit” in a public meeting. In a separate incident, Jones got into a confrontation with Doraville Councilwoman Stephe Koontz, Georgia’s first transgender elected official. According to her, Jones let loose with a transphobic rant. The State Democratic Party called for Jones to apologize, as did primary rival Taylor, who also reached out to Koontz. Jones does not seem to be an apologetic guy.
Two articles, “The Ethics of Vernon Jones” by George Chidi and “Vernon Jones and his bid to ‘fix’ DeKalb’s ethics board” by Bill Torpy, both written in 2017, give you a good idea of what his fellow legislators have to deal with. If you’ve followed the debacle of DeKalb ethics legislation over the past few years, you won’t be surprised to learn that many ethics reformers consider Jones an enemy of, well, ethics. This year, the delegation was able to move past Jones’s obstruction and get a bill passed to set up a referendum that will, if passed, allow the ethics board to be reconstituted.
Jones has also compiled a lousy attendance record, and last fall, he was one of 13 legislators cited for campaign finance violations. His most recent campaign disclosure includes at least $2,000 in donations from bail bondsmen, as well as three donations since Jan. 13, 2020, the opening day of the General Assembly session and the cutoff date for legislators to receive contributions.
There’s so much more. Let’s just say his Wikipedia page is more interesting than most. Oh, yeah, he was sued for racial discrimination and lost.
The residency challenge didn’t generate many headlines during the coronavirus pandemic, but it was a big issue for DeKalb County. Jones’s district 91 includes four precincts in the southeast corner of DeKalb, with most of its precincts in Rockdale, home to Democratic activist and veteran campaign worker Rhonda Taylor, Jones’s only challenger in the June 9 primary. Taylor ran against Jones in 2016 in a four-way race and forced a runoff, which Jones won with 54 percent of the vote to take his current seat. (Jones also served in the House during the 1990s.)
Lithonia resident Faye Coffield filed the legal challenge to Jones’s candidacy, claiming that he isn’t eligible to represent House District 91 because he actually lives in Atlanta. After looking through the documents in her filings, one might wonder exactly where Jones has been living for the past two decades.
The basis of complaint
Usually, such residency challenges arise during a candidate’s initial run for a seat, but the issue didn’t come up in 2016. In 2018, Jones was unopposed. While Jones initially denied Coffield’s claim that he lives in House District 89, on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta, he never presented any evidence to disprove it. While there are often spurious residency challenges, this was not that.
The people who challenged Jones’s eligibility have credibility and savvy. Coffield, a twenty-year-veteran of the Atlanta Police Department, is a private investigator, known for speaking out about corruption in DeKalb County. One of her attorneys is Carey Miller of the Robbins firm, whose resume includes a stint as former Gov. Nathan Deal’s Executive Counsel.
While this isn’t mentioned in Coffield’s challenge, there was a residency issue involving Jones in 2012, when he filed to run in House District 94 (now represented by Karen Bennett). He listed the address he currently uses for voter registration in House District 91: 5560 Mayfair Crossing Drive in Lithonia.
There wasn’t an official challenge, but Andre Walker posted “A gift to the foes of Vernon Jones.” on the Georgia Unfiltered blog. Citing Jones’s address in HD 91, Walker provided readers with a ready-made form to challenge Jones’ eligibility to run in HD 94. This was on May 26, 2012. On May 29, Jones withdrew from the race, citing, ahem, “conflict of interest.”
From On Common Ground: Jones stated, “Since qualifying for state office, it was brought to my attention by a client that I represent, there may be a potential conflict of interest for me to hold state office. This is due to my client having business interest with the state of Georgia.”
Yeah … OK.
Back to the complaint: It’s detailed with numerous exhibits to back up its claim that Jones bought the house on Moreland Avenue “on or about May 31, 2019” and has two phone service accounts at that address, one of them a landline. Coffield’s account also notes that Jones sold the Mayfair Crossing property (his voting address) in 2001 to Sonja Hicks, who is still the owner, according to DeKalb property tax records.
Jones has, in the interceding years, listed a succession of P.O. boxes as his address.
And here are the rules of play:
In their letter to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, attorneys Miller and Rachel Gage “respectfully request that the Secretary of state withhold Representative Jones’s name from the ballot or strike Rep. Jones’s name from the ballot if ballots have now been printed.”
Update: More addresses to address
Since I wrote my original post, more of Jones’s residence shenanigans have been pointed out in tweets by R. Robin McDonald, legal reporter for ALM Media and The Daily Report:
He has done this before. “For two years after he moved to Buckhead, DeKalb Chief Executive Officer Vernon A. Jones continued to claim a South DeKalb house as his voting address. ” Daily Report, July 23, 2003
Jones sold his Lithonia house in August 2001 and then settled into a Buckhead condominium he had bought the previous May. But he continued-through four elections-to vote at his former precinct at Fairington Elementary School in Lithonia, Jones acknowledged.
According to county deed and tax records, Jones bought his Peachtree Place condo May 7, 2001, and secured a homestead exemption, which requires a taxpayer to occupy the listed address.
DeKalb voter registration department staff confirmed to The Daily Report that Jones voted at his old Lithonia precinct in elections on March 19, 2002; Aug. 20, 2002; Sept. 10, 2002; and Nov. 5, 2002.
After inquiries by the Daily Report, Jones’ staff said he changed his voter registration on Monday [July 21 2003] from 5560 Mayfair Crossing Drive to the Peachtree Road condo where he has lived for the past two years.
Faye Coffield’s ChallengeFaye Coffield Challenge to Vernon Jones Residency
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