Corruption investigation targets DeKalb County

Former state Attorney General Mike Bowers began a sweeping investigation Wednesday into corruption in DeKalb County, tarnished by years of accusations of cronyism and dirty government.

Bowers, who was hired by Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, will have unfettered access to county employees and documents in his search of malfeasance among DeKalb’s more than 6,000 government employees, from restaurant inspectors to senior leaders.

But his power is limited. He can’t focus his investigation on the DeKalb Commission because it’s not under May’s authority, though both he and May said they hope commissioners cooperate. And, ultimately, criminal behavior would still have to be pursued by law enforcement agencies.

Numerous DeKalb officials recently have been accused of shady deal-making. Suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis faces a June retrial for allegedly shaking down contractors; ex-Commissioner Elaine Boyer will be sentenced Friday for defrauding taxpayers of more than $90,000; and Zoning Board of Appeals member Jerry Clark pleaded guilty to a bribery charge last month.

“We’re going to root out conflicts of interest, corruption, malfeasance and misfeasance, so help me God,” said Bowers said, known lately for his state investigation of standardized test cheating in Atlanta Public Schools.

May said he hired Bowers to remove the “stench of corruption and distrust” permeating the county.

“He’s a man that takes no prisoners and will do what it takes to preserve the public confidence and integrity in our government,” May said.

May and his senior staff won’t be immune to Bowers’ inspection.

“There is no tolerance for corruption in my administration,” May said. “I think Mike could throw me in jail if he thinks I’m doing something wrong. This administration is willing to take on an endeavor that could possibly go even to my office, and I’m fine with that.”

Bowers’ investigation will last at least 120 days, and he and his team will produce a report that will be released to the public without any prior review by May or his administration. One of Bowers’ investigators will be Richard Hyde, who also handled the Atlanta schools cheating case and now works for the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission that oversees judges’ conduct.

A special grand jury investigation that finished in January 2013 eventually led to the criminal charges against Ellis, but none of the other 11 government employees and contractors named in the report has been indicted. The county also hasn’t followed through with the report’s recommendation to hire an independent auditor who would expose fraud and improve efficiency.

Bowers said he will use the special grand jury’s report as part of his probe.

Government employees have repeatedly taken advantage of the county’s lax oversight, said Albert Trujillo, the foreman of the special grand jury.

“They didn’t have any fear of getting caught because no one was looking,” Trujillo said. “Whenever there had been an opportunity for money to change hands … it seemed they took that as an opportunity to put money in their pockets.”

Commissioner Nancy Jester, who has at times been a critic of May, said she welcomed Bowers’ investigation.

“It’s my belief that there are real and significant issues of conflict and malfeasance within the government.”

Brenda Pace, a South DeKalb resident who has been advocating for reforms like hiring an independent auditor, said the investigation will help repair the county, but long-term changes are also needed. A measure to create the independent auditor position is pending in the Georgia General Assembly.

“It’s going to make a huge difference because we’ll finally get rid of these allegations,” Pace said of the investigation. “Taxpayer dollars are being wasted, big-time.”

Bowers will be paid $400 an hour, and his investigators will be paid $300 an hour from the county’s non-departmental budget. The county didn’t provide an estimate of the total cost, but May has some discretion over spending from existing budgets.

Bowers warned that May is taking a risk by seeking this investigation because Bowers doesn’t know what he will find.

“We are sort of like rolling cannons on the deck of a ship,” Bowers said. “There are some bad apples — woe be unto you. But the good decent folks, you have nothing to fear from us.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Georgia Politics

Mayor Reed puts airport exec on leave amid concerns over contracts
Mayor Reed puts airport exec on leave amid concerns over contracts

A high-ranking official at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has been placed on administrative leave after the mayor’s office learned that his wife is doing business with an airport subcontractor. A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed said Friday that the action was taken against Cortez Carter, deputy general manager at the airport, whose...
The Week: Blank says kneeling should not be seen as disrespect
The Week: Blank says kneeling should not be seen as disrespect

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank offered his own interpretation of protests NFL players have staged this season by kneeling during the national anthem. “It’s very clear that the players have no interest whatsoever in being disrespectful to the flag or the anthem,” Blank told GPB’s Ricky Bevington this past week. &ldquo...
Dunwoody man goes from battling brain cancer to DNR hunting consultant
Dunwoody man goes from battling brain cancer to DNR hunting consultant

When Chip Madren was in seventh grade, doctors told his family the type of brain cancer he had gave him about two more years to live. It was his love of hunting that caused him to fight for his life, his mother said, after being promised a trip to Montana when he got better. “He was not fighting well up until that time,” Lea Madren said...
Move for freer political speech divides Georgia’s religious community
Move for freer political speech divides Georgia’s religious community

It’s a regular ritual on Sundays before big votes: Candidates fan out to churches across the state, take prominent perches near the pulpit and receive warm applause from parishioners. And preachers inevitably shower them with kind words, though they stop short of much more lest they cross an invisible line. That’s exactly what happened...
Georgia’s craft brewers would win big in Senate tax bill
Georgia’s craft brewers would win big in Senate tax bill

The U.S. Senate’s new tax bill would give Georgia’s small craft breweries some holiday cheer months after a watershed state law provided a major economic boon to beer makers and liquor distillers. The would-be Christmas present comes in the form of a proposed tax decrease, which industry advocates say would put thousands of dollars into...
More Stories