Can Lee May still lead?

Corruption report casts doubt on DeKalb CEO’s ethics, competence.


With DeKalb County reeling from one corruption scandal after another, Lee May wanted to prove he could be trusted to lead.

So without a vote or any public input, the acting CEO awarded a no-bid, blank-check contract to a law firm charging as much as $400 per hour. As part of the deal, the county would have no control over how the investigators conducted their work, nor any say-so into the final product.

The directive: root out fraud and abuse, in a county which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news outlets had already shown to be teeming with it. Asked what the final price tag might be, May explained at the time, “I don’t want to put a limit on it, or even a floor.”

Six months later, the county faces a tab nearing $900,000 for an investigation that ended where it started — with May. The strongest assertion in the final report is that May isn’t right for the job. He’s portrayed as deceitful and obfuscating, captaining a rudderless bureaucracy that spends money without restraint, with no firm hand at the helm.

When May ordered the investigators to wrap up their work, he said he wanted recommendations on how to improve the county government. Now May says he’ll be disregarding the most clear advice their report offered: Resign immediately.

As if the findings weren’t damning enough, May made matters worse when he denied the report’s allegation that he’d borrowed money from a subordinate, prompting the state’s former attorney general to publicly call him “a liar.”

In the fallout that has followed, some critics say May has lost the moral credibility needed to lead a county in crisis.

“I’m totally disappointed in his leadership of DeKalb County — he wasted money,” said Faye Coffield, a south DeKalb resident and former Atlanta Police sergeant. “Everything flows downhill, and it flows from him down. If you have a person in his position that has integrity and demands there’s integrity in all departments, we wouldn’t have this foolishness.”

Such observations are a stunning turn-around for a politician who was quietly waiting in the wings for a chance to lead.

The son of a pastor, May became the youngest person elected to the DeKalb County Commission when he was first elected at age 30 in 2006.

In 2013, he was serving as the commission’s presiding officer, next in line to take over as CEO when Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Burrell Ellis from office.

That put May, who holds a master of divinity degree and endured a series of bankruptcies stemming from a failed effort to run a movie theater, in charge of a $1.3 billion operation.

Isaac Blythers, a former Ethics Board chairman, said he wants the governor to remove May from office, although it’s not clear if Deal has that power based on the special investigators’ report alone.

“I don’t think he has enough of a skill set to bring to the table to manage anything,” Blythers said. “Hopefully the governor will decide that this guy is not someone worthy of being in here.”

Former DeKalb CEO Liane Levetan said she’s saddened that DeKalb’s government — and its reputation — have sunk so far.

“I just can’t understand how things got the way they are. It’s really upsetting to me,” she said.

May, who celebrated his 40th birthday last Thursday, did not respond to an interview request for this story.

At a news conference Wednesday, he said, “Anybody can question my leadership ability. Commissioners question my leadership ability, my wife questions my leadership ability. It is what it is. Everyone has their opinion, but at the end of the day we’re looking for facts.”

‘No more corrupt … than any other’

The report by former state Attorney General Mike Bowers and investigator Richard Hyde, begun in March, is just 40 pages long and admittedly incomplete.

A third of the report is made up of lists of “questionable” expenses which may or may not be legitimate, since the investigators didn’t thoroughly vet them. The pair blame any shortcomings in their work on May for ordering them to hurry up and finish when their investigative trail led to him.

The investigators said they examined 50,000 purchases and identified 311 questionable expenses, totalling more than $537,000. More than 90 percent of the money was spent by five of DeKalb’s seven commissioners and May, an AJC analysis found.

The investigators said many of the expenses appeared to be for items and services that were outside the scope of government, such as donations to charity, snacks, gift cards, even flowers.

State Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, wondered if May knew what he was getting into when he hired the investigators.

“I think Lee thought, ‘I can buy myself a clean bill of health by hiring the best of the best,’” he said. “What you get with hiring the best of the best is they looked at him first. Then it started getting ugly.”

In his news conference, May called the Bowers/Hyde report “laughable” and “pitiful,” and downplayed the extent of DeKalb’s problems. “We are no more corrupt than any county in this state,” he said.

May was speaking about a county where his predecessor, Ellis, was convicted this summer of attempted extortion, where former Commissioner Elaine Boyer last year pleaded guilty to an $85,000 kickback scheme and where former Zoning Board of Appeals member Jerry Clark — who was May’s own appointee — confessed in February to taking $3,500 in bribes.

He also expressed exasperation with questions about unrestricted spending on county-issued Visa cards — a rampant problem that led to Boyer’s downfall, pending criminal charges against her top aide, and Ethics Board complaints against other commissioners. The report called for all P-card accounts to be closed.

Instead of pledging to root out any officials who might have stolen from taxpayers, May said, “How much more can we have of P-card transactions?

“I eliminated the P-card program,” he said. “That’s what I did, and yet they continued to research P-card transactions.”

A gaping disconnect

It was hardly the first time May has seemed out of touch with the gravity of problems in his county, or how to deal with them. Since being named interim CEO after Ellis’ indictment, he has repeatedly made statements and decisions that cast him as soft on unethical behavior.

When the AJC uncovered Boyer’s P-card abuses in early 2014, May allowed his spokesman, Burke Brennan, to handle public relations for her, even though Brennan doesn’t normally work for commissioners. Boyer and May were allies when they both sat on the commission.

Later that year the AJC presented May with its investigative findings on Boyer’s kickback scheme. The acting leader seemed more dismayed with the hit to DeKalb’s reputation, suggesting that other counties and cities should be scrutinized in the same way.

“I’m just frustrated right now,” May said on the day Boyer admitted guilt to a federal judge. “The headlines, the accusations, the ethics claims and the criminal charges, as well, (are) more of an obstacle for us here, and we have to get beyond it.”

In 2013, soon after he had ascended to the top office, a rank-and-file employee came to him with suspicions about a $1 million housing rehab contract that had been awarded to a politically connected insider, Vaughn Irons. An extra $500,000 had been awarded to Irons’ company without a bid process, the Community Development financial officer, Harmel Codi, told her boss.

Codi says May told her it was a “non-issue,” which May denied in an interview with the AJC.

Either way, May took no action and later endorsed Irons to co-chair a task force he set up to propose reforms for the county.

An investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News revealed Irons had been making monthly payments to a sitting county commissioner who was helping him with a casino-style resort development, and that he won the county contract thanks to a phony legal document that allowed him to bid despite being a member of the county’s Development Authority.

Irons has denied playing any role in submitting the fake document to the county. In the wake of the revelations, May removed Irons from the Development Authority board — along with the rest of the board, which he said needed a fresh start.

No action on contract

The most recent example of May’s tone-deaf response to questionable spending came just last week, a day after Bowers and Hyde called DeKalb “a disgrace to its citizens and an embarrassment to our state.”

The AJC and Channel 2 reported how May’s top aide, Edmond Richardson, skirted policies to award a $24,500 youth services contract to Clark, a friend of Richardson’s.

Clark billed the county for two months when he did little, if any, work, including a back-dated invoice for February 2014 that was submitted in July.

Clark also appeared to be working as a consultant at the same time he was serving on DeKalb’s zoning board, violating the county’s ethics code. In February of this year, Clark pleaded guilty to accepting bribes while serving on the zoning board.

Former DeKalb District Attorney Bob Wilson told the AJC and Channel 2 that the handling of Clark’s contract was improper and possibly criminal, and May should take action.

“It says you’re not willing to look in the mirror very hard at yourself and the operation around you, I’m afraid,” Wilson said. “I can think of no issue bigger for DeKalb County right now than cleaning up its mess, getting things back on the proper track.”

On Thursday, May said he stood by an earlier position — taken before the Bowers/Hyde report — that he would not take any action.

Recommendations

The Bowers/Hyde report found numerous other problems in DeKalb’s management and financial controls.

The investigators said that despite May’s adoption of a new purchasing policy, the county is wrapped up in a $2.4 million contract that allows a single company to work exclusively on 14 departments’ car radios, even though two other companies could be doing the work for less.

Meanwhile, vendors face a month-long delay in getting paid unless they know the right person to pull a string, according to the report. And the purchasing policy effectively blacklists any contractors who object to the bidding process by forcing them to sue, then disqualifying any firms with a pending lawsuit from bidding, the report says.

The report concluded with 14 short recommendations for reform, including posting commission finances online and keeping departments within budget.

It also suggested that the county eliminate use of government purchasing cards, a step that was mostly accomplished when May suspended most of the county’s 253 P-cards in June on the advice of the investigators. As of Aug. 31, 58 purchasing cards were still in use for emergencies, motor vehicle repairs and court expenses.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she’s not sure if the report will do much to fix DeKalb. Significant change would have to come from criminal prosecutions, she said.

“Many things are already in process, like the independent auditor,” she said. “I’m ready for some action from the entity that matters, and that’s the U.S. Attorney.”

The former chairman of the DeKalb Board of Ethics, John Ernst, said a combination of government reforms and more responsible individual behavior is necessary for DeKalb to emerge from its difficulties.

“It’s going to take all men on ship. It’s going to take everyone and different structures to get through this current crisis of confidence,” said Ernst, who is running for mayor of Brookhaven. “You can have all these studies and reports, but action is required.”


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