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Ethics complaint against commissioner dismissed
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Forsyth County News

The Forsyth County Board of Ethics dismissed a complaint Wednesday against county Commissioner Brian Tam.

The complaint, filed by county resident Gerry Sullivan, centered on Tam's management position at Tam's Backstage, a restaurant owned and operated by his wife in a building leased from the city of Cumming.

According to Sullivan's complaint, "Due to the nature of the [restaurant] lease agreement there exists ongoing conflict of interest between Brian

Tam's service as a Forsyth County elected official and his economic and pecuniary interest in Tam's Backstage."

After about 90 minutes of discussion at the investigatory review, the panel voted 4-0 to not to hold a hearing about the complaint. Member Tim Perry was not present.

Board members questioned the perception of a "reasonable person" to believe Tam could be influenced and whether Tam's official action could have any direct impact on his lease.

Kevin McDonough, a former member of the board ethics, sat in for member Mitch McKinney, who recused himself.

"I don't see how Commissioner Tam's votes can directly affect his contract in dealings with the city," said McDonough, an attorney.

"Based on that requirement that interest be directly affected in the statute, I don't see how a reasonable person could see that."

The board also voted 4-0 that the lease did not constitute an "improper benefit" to Tam.

"I don't see any evidence. To me, an improper benefit would almost be a 'quid pro quo,'" member Bob Charles said. "For example, the city coming to Commissioner Tam and saying, 'If you'll do what we want, we'll give this to you.'"

Tam and his wife, Kelly, who is named on the lease, were present though unable to comment during the board's review. Sullivan did not attend.

Following the review, Tam noted that ethics board members "took their time and they were very thorough."

"The vote was unanimous," he said. "It was a frivolous waste of time and money, but it's done and it's time to move on."

After the complaint was filed in May, Tam had said that it was an attack based on his opposition to the county's possible purchase of Lanier Golf Course.

Sullivan, who lives near the course, has been a proponent of the county buying the site from the owners and leasing it to a private entity to be run as a golf course.

The course, however, was not mentioned in the complaint, though county commissioners' votes on issues dealing with city intergovernmental agreements were.

The ethics board questioned whether Tam could be perceived to be in fear of his lease being terminated if he voted unfavorably from the city's perspective.

While the potential existed, member Rusty Ricketson said, all people have potential for ethical violations.

"It's up to the citizens to make that determination of character when they vote for the said person running for office as to whether they will give in to said temptations and possible ethical situations," he said. "I can't look into the possibilities. They're endless."

The board, however, did consider several hypothetical scenarios that might represent a conflict of interest.

"We've had some strange cases in the past," said Chairman George Pirkle. "This one is one of the most difficult to get our hands around."