Editor's note: The AJC’s probe of DeKalb County government didn’t end with last year’s conviction of Commissioner Elaine Boyer. As the AJC continued digging into corruption, malfeasance and irregularities in DeKalb County in 2015, new scandals came to light, catching the attention of county, state and federal investigators. There were the curious case of an apparently forged legal document that paved the way for a DeKalb official to win a million-dollar county contract; the revelation that another county commissioner was on his payroll as a consultant; disturbing questions about a $4,000 check written to acting CEO Lee May, apparently cashed with a forged signature; and a subsequent contract award to the company that made the payment. The investigations led to a county examination of employees’ use of charge cards; hiring and later firing of special investigators to root out corruption; separate police, DA and FBI investigations; and the hiring of more fraud fighters. Then, in November, voters approved an overhaul of the DeKalb ethics board.
This is what the special investigators meant when they called DeKalb County “rotten to the core”:
County commissioners hand tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to campaign workers, public relations firms, consultants, charities, and even a commissioner’s boyfriend. Rank-and-file employees freely spend hundreds of dollars on television sets, groceries, flowers, snacks and gift cards. And one lucky employee goes to the Bahamas on the county dime after winning an office drawing.
And Interim CEO Lee May, who ordered the probe, was part of the problem, too. The investigators accuse him of standing in their way when a trail of questionable conduct led to his door.
Their recommendation to May: Resign immediately.
“He hired us and gave us a mission of uncovering fraud, waste, abuse and corruption and we took that on in good faith,” former Attorney General Michael Bowers said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “But then he hides from us that he himself is engaging in what I can only call sinister conduct.”
Bowers and special investigator Richard Hyde delivered their explosive findings to May in a 40-page report filled with damning allegations of mismanagement and spending run amok. The bombshells didn’t take long to land.
May called a news conference two hours after the AJC broke the news and angrily denounced the report’s findings, its authors — and its $850,000 price tag.
“The salaciousness of this report is unbecoming a former Attorney General of this state,” said May. The CEO rejected the call to resign. And he sought to turn the tables on his accusers, saying “what we have today is wasteful” and adding that he’d seek to recover money spent on the investigation.
In what might be the most staggering political miscalculation in recent metro Atlanta history, May hired the bulldog investigators in March to conduct a far-reaching inquiry into DeKalb’s spending and remove the “stench of corruption and distrust” from county government.
But the gambit blew up in his face. The Bowers/Hyde report paints a picture of run-away government spending, with no controls or oversight, and flagrant disregard for laws and the Georgia Constitution.
“They can hire investigators, they can hire auditors, they can hire experts from now until kingdom come and it won’t make any difference until there is some discipline instilled as a matter of leadership,” Bowers told the AJC. “And there is none. Zero. None. Somebody’s got to say, ‘Stop. Don’t do that.’ I gather nobody does that. The county attorney doesn’t do it. The CEO doesn’t do it. And they just spend money. They do things they ought not to be doing and it can only be called corruption.”
A public battle between May and Bowers may be just heating up.
“What I know without a shadow of a doubt today,” May said, referring to Bowers, “this was absolutely the wrong person.”
Bowers and Hyde also called on other DeKalb officials to resign, citing numerous examples of improper and potentially illegal spending by five of the county’s seven district commissioners and numerous other county departments, including the District Attorney’s Office and the Solicitor’s Office.
“County commissioners knew about it,” Bowers said. “Some of them were deeply involved in it, especially in the spending.”
One section of the report questions a $2.4 million contract with T-Mobile Communications, with the county using the company exclusively to install and repair radios in county vehicles even though two other companies proposed to do the work more cheaply. A deputy director in the Purchasing Department is quoted saying that the contract should be terminated and re-bid.
The report says a Sanitation employee was arrested for drunk driving in a county vehicle, while on duty, and that a supervisor approved using $140 in county funds to pull the vehicle out of an impound lot. The employee pleaded guilty and resigned, but was rehired the next week, the investigators said.
They said they forwarded one bribery allegation to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The investigators harshly criticized May for halting their work when they still had hundreds of interviews left to conduct and thousands of more documents to review.
They called on the state Attorney General’s Office to follow up where they left off and said a grand jury should consider charges against those guilty of illegal spending.
They also said the county should try to make DeKalb employees pay back any misspent funds, offering amnesty to those who cooperate.
Other recommendations from the report include:
- The appointment of a new supervisor for all county operations with the power and authority to manage all county departments.
- That all spending by commission members and their staff be posted each week on a public county website.
- The closing of all purchase cards accounts used by county officials and employees. May suspended use of most cards in June after Bowers delivered some preliminary findings about P-card abuse.
- That all records of county expenditures be kept for at least seven years.
Bull’s-eye on May
Bowers and Hyde also conceded that many of the charges they cite could have legitimate explanations, since they didn’t get to finish their investigation after a public falling out with May in early August.
Some cases they cited appear extreme — such as Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton spending tens of thousands of dollars paying her then-boyfriend to work in her office, which the AJC reported last year. Others seem minor — such as Commission Chief of Staff Morris Williams spending $11 at a cigar store and County Clerk Barbara Sanders spending $2.99 on a Bic lighter.
But the investigators leveled their harshest criticisms at May, who they said violated the county charter by accepting a loan from Williams, Lee’s former aide who retired abruptly in March.
At his Wednesday news conference, May denied taking a loan from Williams, which prompted a rebuttal from special investigator Hyde.
“He told me about it himself during an interview on May 7th,” Hyde said of the interim CEO. “He admitted to me he had borrowed money from Morris Williams in the past.”
Whatever the truth of the loan, Bowers said it violated the county’s Organizational Act, and potential penalties include removal from office. The county charter forbids government officials receiving a loan if it can influence his or her decision-making about the lender.
The report didn’t say when May got the loan or how much it was for, but the accusation is significant because of questions still swirling around May over a payment from a county vendor.
The vendor, who had arranged for $6,500 in repairs to May’s home after a sewage line backup, claims he gave $4,000 to Williams with the understanding that he would pass it along to May to help with his personal financial problems. The vendor won a $300,000 county contract later that year, an investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News found.
May said he never saw a dollar of the $4,000 and never took part in kickbacks or pay-to-play schemes.
Details of the loan allegation were forwarded to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, according to the report.
The investigators also cited expenses May rang up during a trip to Hawaii last year for a National Association of Counties meeting. He spent $223 on a spa treatment at the Grand Wailea Resort in Maui. He also spent $36.45 on a movie. The AJC checked with the hotel, and the amount matches the price with tax for an “Adult Movie Package.”
May told the investigators he had reimbursed the county for those expenses and would provide them documentation, but he never did, the report said.
On Wednesday, May said he watched movies but not adult ones during the trip. His spokesman, Burke Brennan, said May used two charge cards to pay for the resort stay — one a county card, the other a personal card covering his personal expenses.
The resort bill, attached as an addendum to the investigators’ report, does indicate two different cards were used. Asked to provide documentation that one was a personal card, Brennan said he couldn’t respond to that until Thursday.
Bowers’ report also noted that Brennan did not provide supporting records of Brennan’s spending.
At a press conference May held with Bowers in March, he promised the team unfettered access to county records and pledged to cooperate.
But May reneged, the report said, hindering their investigation from the outset and finally cutting off their probe in August.
For example, while most county departments complied with requests for records, May blocked the investigators’ attempts to obtain spending records from the District Attorney’s Office, the report said.
May also asked Bowers to tell Hyde not to interview Williams, whose retirement came shortly after the probe began, the report said.
This became more significant, the investigators said, after they discovered the loan to May from Williams.
The report lists hundreds of items of questionable spending, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, by other county commissioners and employees.
It cited $11,500 Sutton spent on attorneys with Bell & Washington. The AJC and Channel 2 have previously reported that the attorneys’ work included fending off Channel 2’s Richard Belcher as he asked questions about Sutton’s use of county employees at a campaign event. The investigators’ report says the attorneys’ work also involved Sutton’s personal taxes and car payments.
It cited $800 Commissioner Larry Johnson spent on a karaoke DJ. And they dinged Commissioner Kathie Gannon for buying $1,300 in gift cards from CVS, Target, Kroger and QuikTrip.
Charities and gratuities
The investigators also alleged that donations to charity violated the state Constitution’s gratuities clause, which forbids governments from giving away assets without receiving anything in return.
“You don’t have to be a constitutional law expert to know that you can’t spend government money on your favorite charity, no matter how worthy the cause,” Bowers told the AJC. “You can’t do that. That’s been the law in Georgia at least since 1877.”
The report said Commissioner Jeff Rader gave $20,000 to Park Pride Atlanta and $6,000 to the DeKalb Historical Society. Johnson gave $11,500 to Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Development Inc., which benefited the county’s 500-seat Porter Sanford center in south DeKalb.
Rader said every group he donated do benefited county residents in some way. Park Pride, he said, used the money to improve DeKalb parks. The DeKalb Historical Society provided a report on ranch houses. The $1,050 he gave to the Druid Hills Athletic Foundation and the $950 he gave to the Decatur Bulldogs Booster Club went toward activities for children.
Rader said he had not previously obtained a legal opinion on whether such expenditures are legal, but he said he had requested one Wednesday from the county attorney’s office.
Another illegal gratuity, the report said, was a Bahamas cruise given to an employee not for doing good work, but because the employee’s name was drawn from a jar in a customer service award drawing for county employees. “Chance cannot be the basis of the award,” the report said.
In March, May acknowledged that hiring Bowers was “risky.”
“One of the good things about Mike is I think Mike will throw me in jail if he thinks I’m doing something wrong,” May said at the time. “And I will be hopeful that the people in DeKalb County would be encouraged that I and this administration is willing to take on an endeavor that could possibly go even to my office, and I’m fine with that.”
On Wednesday, Bowers said he, too, was struck by how his investigation unfolded.
“What is the most stunning thing to me is, why in the name of goodness did they hire us?” Bowers said. “That is beyond me. And I asked Lee May when he came to us, ‘Are you sure you want this? Because we’re going to cover stuff that you can’t imagine…’
“And that is exactly what has happened. Exactly.”
Reporter Mark Niesse contributed to this report.
Timeline of an investigation
March 18: Interim CEO Lee May announces that special investigators Michael Bowers and Richard Hyde will conduct an investigation to “do what it takes to preserve the public confidence and integrity in our government.”
June 8: May suspends county employee use of purchasing cards based on suspicious purchases uncovered in the Bowers/Hyde investigation.
June 9: Hyde/Bowers disclose that P-cards were used to purchase flowers, membership dues, make donations to charities and food.
July 22: DeKalb commission votes 4-3 to withhold $500,000 sought by May to pay for the Bowers/Hyde investigation, and $208,000 being sought by District Attorney Robert James to hire additional staff for his public integrity unit.
Aug. 5: In a letter to May, Bowers says DeKalb is “rotten to the core” with misconduct that “starts at the top and infects nearly every department we have looked at.”
Aug. 6: May expresses “concern” about the tone of Bowers’ Aug. 5 letter and accuses him of “generalized personal attacks on the entire county workforce.” May demands the final investigative report by Aug. 26.
Aug. 12: May holds a news conference to defend his handling of the Bowers/Hyde investigation. Says he expects the final report to be “factual, to be professional, and … backed up with specifics.”
Sept. 8: DeKalb commissioners reverse themselves and vote to fund additional public integrity staff for District Attorney Robert James’ office. It did not act on May’s July 22 request for $500,000 for the Bowers/Hyde investigation.
Sept. 30: Special investigators Bowers and Hyde deliver a 40-page report to May, calling on him to resign and saying he thwarted their efforts to fully investigate improper conduct. May calls the report “laughable” and full of “salacious lies.”
AJC reporters broke the story on DeKalb’s corruption report and covered CEO May’s Wednesday news conference. Highlights from the day:
Interim CEO Lee May improperly borrowed money from a subordinate and should resign, special investigators find.
Investigators find questionable expenditures by five of DeKalb’s seven district commissioners and in eight county departments.
Report recommends action by Georgia Attorney General and grand jury.
May angrily denounces report and its authors; denies any wrongdoing in evening news conference.
Go to myAJC.com for a chronology of corruption cases in DeKalb County, and to read the AJC’s extensive coverage of DeKalb.