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New I-85 bridge on schedule, could cost up to $16.6M

Culture of corruption reigns in DeKalb, says grand jury


To understand the brazenness of the corruption alleged by a special DeKalb County grand jury, consider this: Officials awarded a $2.2 million-a-year tree-trimming contract to a fake company created by a Cartoon Network employee who didn’t so much as own a chain saw.

And this: When a DeKalb police detective began linking county officials to inflated invoices and fraudulent payments to favored contractors, her superiors shut the investigation down.

Such is the sordid realm of government contracting in DeKalb County, according to a grand jury report released to the public last week. The panel spent a year examining documents, hearing testimony from 89 witnesses and deconstructing what jurors said was a culture of corruption that seamlessly spanned a decade and two county administrations.

Grand jurors said they found such endemic “incompetence, patronage, fraud and cronyism” that they recommended criminal investigations of a dozen current and former DeKalb officials and vendors, including CEO Burrell Ellis, former CEO Vernon Jones and former Public Safety Director William “Wiz” Miller. Ellis was indicted in June on corruption charges, was suspended and is awaiting trial. The charges against him have stirred calls to reduce the CEO’s power.

The grand jurors’ report described a constellation of county vendors, would-be contractors, political fixers, bureaucrats and politicians who tried to enrich themselves at the expense of DeKalb taxpayers, not to mention their enemies in business and politics. Some contracts were awarded because of personal or family connections, the report said, while officials withheld business from some vendors simply out of spite. At stake were contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ellis, Jones, Miller and others criticized by the grand jury deny wrongdoing. Lawyers for Ellis and Jones say the grand jury was a political tool used to damage the reputations of some officials and further the careers of others. The lawyers contend the investigation exceeded its original intent of investigating the county’s Watershed Management Department and produced a report rife with untruths and hearsay.

Jones’ attorney, Dwight Thomas, said prosecutors have had the grand jury’s findings since January but have come up with nothing other than the indictment of Ellis. The report, he said, is heavy on innuendo, light on specifics.

“They talk about bribery,” Thomas said. “Who got bribed? How much? When?”

Despite its exhaustive listing of alleged misdeeds, the report leaves those questions unanswered.

A LARGER CASE

Until now, the main focus in DeKalb has been on the indictment that accuses Ellis of shaking down county vendors for campaign contributions. But the grand jury report alleges corruption ran much deeper, driven by political interference at the highest levels.

The special-purpose grand jury initially focused on work connected to $1.35 billion in capital improvement projects that struck the fancy of engineers, consultants and construction firms across the Southeast, after the county reached a Clean Water Act settlement with state and federal regulators in December 2010.

Just a few months later, in May 2011, a watershed management employee — a fats, oil and grease inspector named Dameco Moss — pleaded guilty to taking bribes from restaurant owners. Prosecutors assumed Moss was not a lone offender.

“I suspect what we saw in this case is not the end of it,” District Attorney Robert James said at the time. “It’s larger than this one case is my suspicion.”

A deputy director of the watershed department soon approached James’ office and said his hunch was right. Two years earlier, in August 2009, she told prosecutors, a DeKalb police detective had started investigating allegations of invoice padding, contract fraud and bid rigging in the watershed management department. The allegations centered on an obscure Alabama tree-trimming company that had billed nearly $9 million.

Within six months, the detective had created a chart that linked various vendors and subcontractors to high-ranking watershed management officials, including some with close ties to former CEO Jones, who left office in January 2009. The detective turned over the chart to Deputy Police Chief Annette Lane-Woodard in February 2010, the grand jury report said.

About two days later, Miller, the public safety director, instructed investigators to stop working the case, the report said. He gave them no explanation.

About that time, Charles Lambert, a watershed-management deputy director, conducted his own review of the Alabama company’s contract. Lambert, who had been feeding detectives with leads, found “unequivocal evidence,” the grand jury said, of inflated invoices and bills for services the company had not provided. But after Lambert met with Miller and Lane-Woodard, the grand jury said, he could no longer get detectives to return his calls.

The grand jury said it was deeply disturbed by the episode.

“A law enforcement officer can fail to do his duty for many reasons: incompetence, ignorance or perhaps criminal collusiveness,” the jury’s report said. “… Director Miller’s behavior was not the result of incompetence.

“It was apparent,” the grand jury continued, “that (Miller’s) actions were related to stopping an ongoing, active criminal investigation into the Department of Watershed Management when it became obvious that the investigation would involve current county officials.”

Miller told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he did not interfere in the investigation. He said he welcomes further inquiry. Lane-Woodard did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The contract at the core of the scuttled investigation seemed odd from the start.

In 2003, Paul Champion was the owner of a Birmingham, Ala., tree-trimming service with $50,000 in annual revenue. He had little experience clearing public right-of-way, the grand jury said, and he had no ties to Georgia. Nevertheless, he was approached by another Alabama man who asked him to bid on a contract in DeKalb, 150 miles away.

Champion Tree Service entered into the DeKalb County contract in June 2003. At the same time, the grand jury said, Champion agreed to give his Alabama cohort a “finder’s fee” equaling 11 percent of his DeKalb billings.

Months later, however, the county had not paid Champion for his work. So he arranged a meeting with Hadi Haeri, a contract employee in the watershed management agency, and then with John Walker, a deputy director who was a close friend and fraternity brother of then-CEO Jones.

Later, according to the grand jury, Champion agreed to pay Haeri 10 percent of his revenue, cutting out the Alabama man who brought him to DeKalb. Under the new arrangement, the grand jury said, Haeri would help Champion get paid and would also create and submit the company’s invoices to the county. A witness told grand jurors that Champion engaged Haeri to capitalize on his connections with Walker and other officials in Jones’ administration (including, later on, Haeri’s sister-in-law, Nadine Maghsoudlou, a deputy watershed director).

Haeri collected as much as $1.2 million while on the payroll of other county contractors during the same period, working without supervision from those contractors, the grand jury said. His lawyer, Yasha Heidari, said Friday that Haeri engaged in no improper actions. He described the grand jury investigation as “sort of a witch hunt.”

“There was full disclosure of everything he was doing,” Heidari said of his client. “He was compensated for the work he was doing.”

In late 2006, Champion’s contract was up for renewal. According to the grand jury, Walker told Champion he needed a “black face” on the new deal. With that in mind, the grand jury said, Champion approached a childhood friend, an African-American named Christian Vann. For years, Vann had done voice-over recording work for corporate clients, and had modeled in advertisements.

He didn’t even own a chain saw, the grand jury noted. His day job: animations standards editor at the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network.

BREACH OF CONTRACT

Champion and Vann came to an agreement, the grand jury said: Vann would incorporate a phony company — Ace Environmental — then sign bid documents and the county contract. Champion would claim to be a subcontractor but would actually perform all the work.

“The realization that a fictitious company with no assets, no equipment, no employees and no experience in the relevant area can win a multimillion-dollar services contract with the county is of great concern,” the grand jury’s report notes.

Soon, however, Vann and Champion got into a dispute over fees. Vann sold the name Ace Environmental to an Atlanta businessman, David Gallemore, and got out of the tree-trimming business after a mere 50 days.

Vann now works as a communications specialist for Atlanta Public Schools. He said Friday he had appeared before the grand jury but declined to recount his testimony.

“That was a long time ago,” he said. “What happened, happened.”

Champion ultimately filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the county. That case uncovered much of the corruption now cited by the grand jury, said Champion’s lawyer, Bob Wilson. In an interview Friday, Wilson said Champion did nothing wrong.

“I commend the grand jury for going after corruption, but you have to be very careful you don’t castigate the innocents along the way,” Wilson said. “I was disappointed that the guy who set the spark and pointed them to the corruption is being accused of it, too.”

‘CORRUPT ACTIVITIES’

Troubles over the tree-trimming contract and other county business didn’t end with Champion and Vann. By 2007, Gallemore was in conflict with John Walker, the deputy watershed director, the grand jury said, and he sent emails threatening to publicly accuse Walker and Jones of “corrupt activities,” such as accepting kickbacks and manipulating contract awards.

Walker’s twin brother, Jeffrey, had signed on with at least two county contractors and collected fees of about $200,000, despite a lack of experience in engineering, construction or public policy, the grand jury said. Walker could not be reached for comment. His “only qualification” to work for the contractors, the grand jury said, was his family’s ties to Jones and to another DeKalb official.

That official, an associate director of the watershed-management agency named Roy Barnes (no relation to the former Georgia governor), investigated Gallemore’s emails — but not the allegations they contained, according to the grand jury. Barnes, the grand jury said, “received thousands of dollars from John Walker for unknown purposes.”

John Walker died in 2007. Barnes, now the water and sewer director in East Point, did not respond to a request for an interview.

About the same time as Barnes was looking at the emails, a county audit found that 14 vendors had been issued scores of contracts, each worth just less than $50,000 — the threshold that triggers a requirement for competitive bidding. In all, the county paid the 14 vendors about $22 million, including $2.6 million to a technology company called G4 Enterprises. Its founder: David Gallemore.

Gallemore did not respond to a request for an interview Friday.

When the no-bid deals came to light, Burrell Ellis was a county commissioner, and he strongly criticized the practice. “I think there clearly was an intent to circumvent the system,” he said in 2008.

The man who approved many of those sub-$50,000 contracts was the county’s purchasing director, Kelvin Walton. His name would turn up in another context as the grand jury continued its investigation: Walton is the same official who, according to court records, Ellis approached for names of county vendors he could allegedly pressure for contributions.

This was one of many uneasy relationships in DeKalb. Even Jeffrey Walker, who allegedly benefited from corrupt contract practices, wrote a memo, titled “Things to Know,” that found its way to the grand jury. The memo described a scheme that tied contracts to campaign contributions. Its leader, Walker said, was Burrell Ellis.



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