DeKalb corruption crisis might not be over


The report on corruption in DeKalb County was explosive. With allegations of illegal spending, mismanagement and bribery, Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the GBI to get involved.

Agents huddled with the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and Georgia Attorney General’s Office on Oct. 30 to decide what to do.

They quickly reached a conclusion: No further criminal inquiries were warranted as a result of the report by hired hands Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde.

But that curt dismissal of the $885,294 report didn’t put DeKalb in the clear.

Though many in the county are eager to put the seemingly endless stream of corruption accusations in their rearview mirrors, law enforcement agencies are still looking into allegations of vote buying, mysterious payments to officials and extortion, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s review of government records, court documents and prosecutors’ public statements.

After years of investigations into DeKalb government officials, residents could see more criminal charges brought against local leaders, contractors and employees in Georgia’s fourth-largest county.

The FBI was watching DeKalb’s government before Bowers and Hyde released their report, according to a Nov. 20 memo written by GBI Special Agent Rocky Bigham, who has been assigned to the FBI Public Corruption Unit for more than two years.

“The majority of the allegations were already known by the FBI,” Bigham wrote in the memo, obtained by the AJC through a Georgia Open Records Act Request.

Dozens of people have been convicted on corruption-related charges in DeKalb, including CEO Burrell EllisCommissioner Elaine BoyerZoning Board of Appeals member Jerry Clark and schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis.

But some residents are calling for more aggressive action from prosecutors to clean up DeKalb.

“Law enforcement has delayed these cases to the point where they have denied the public the justice that’s due,” said Viola Davis, a member of a group called Restore DeKalb, which wants a special prosecutor appointed. “Without a doubt, they haven’t done enough, and the part they have done has moved at a turtle’s pace.”

DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said his office must act deliberately. Not all questionable behavior rises to the level of crime, he said, adding that his prosecutors are continually reviewing accusations and evidence.

Vote buying

One of the cases still under investigation involves bribes paid to secure a zoning permit for a pool hall.

Two people — zoning board member Clark and Lulu Billiards owner Ismail Sirdah — already have pleaded guilty, but the investigation continues. Some of the bribes that a federal prosecutor said Sirdah paid remain unaccounted for.

Authorities said Sirdah paid $5,500 to help convince the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals to allow his pool hall to operate as a nightclub with a dance floor. The board voted 4-2 to issue a permit in November 2012.

Clark received $3,500 of the bribes, assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Davis said in federal court Jan. 20. Davis didn’t say where the other $2,000 went.

Before the vote, Clark and another zoning board member confronted Sirdah at his business, according to a court filing by Sirdah. They made clear that, if he paid them, they would overturn a county Planning Department determination that the club wasn’t zoned to operate as a nightclub with a dance floor.

The other board member’s name wasn’t mentioned in court, but federal prosecutors last April subpoenaed records from the county about then-Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Darryl Jennings Sr.

Jennings hasn’t been charged with a crime, and he didn’t return an email and phone call seeking comment. Clark says Jennings didn’t do anything illegal.

“There was no doubt in Mr. Sirdah’s mind that payment was required,” wrote Sirdah’s attorney in a sentencing memo last month. “He could only speculate what the result would be if he decided not to pay the two board members.”

A judge last month ordered Clark and Sirdah to serve prison sentences of nine months and six months, respectively.

Sirdah’s attorney, Janice Singer-Capek, said she doesn’t know why others haven’t been charged.

“I wonder that too, but only the government can answer that question,” she said. “Mr. Sirdah provided all the information about Clark and all the information about another public official.”

Clark apologized for his actions after his sentencing.

“It’s a part of my life I’m ready to move on from. … I made a mistake, and I’m going to learn from it and come out a better person,” he said.

Jennings took a leave of absence from the Zoning Board of Appeals on May 13, 2015, saying he didn’t want to be a distraction.

“I have not been charged with any criminal activity and my name has only been associated with a fact finding effort,” Jennings wrote in a memo to Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May obtained by the AJC through an open records request. “My decision to not participate as a member of the board until the end of the investigation is indicative of the respect I have for the citizens of DeKalb County.”

Kathy Zickert, an attorney who represented Sirdah during his zoning appeal, said she’d like to see resolution to the bribery case and other allegations surrounding DeKalb.

“If you’re going to prosecute, then for God’s sake let’s prosecute,” she said. “Let’s haul it out and clean it out and start over.”

The $4,000 check

Another case under investigation involves a $4,000 check written by a contractor to May, the county’s chief executive since Ellis was suspended 2½ years ago.

Doug Cotter, whose company was paid $6,500 by the county to repair a late 2010 sewage backup in May’s house, told the AJC and Channel 2 Action News last year he wrote the check in June 2011 to help May with financial difficulties. Five months later, Cotter’s company won a $300,000 contract to clean up floods and sewage back-flows in homes throughout the county.

The $4,000 payment could be illegal if it was meant to curry favor from government officials.

Cotter has said he delivered the check to Morris Williams, the DeKalb Commission’s former chief of staff.

A few days later, Williams gave the check back with May’s name signed — which May says was a forgery — on the back and asked Cotter to cash it, Cotter said last year.

Cotter said he took the check to a liquor store that his family owns, cashed it and then handed the money to Williams at a McDonald’s. That was the last Cotter saw of the money, he said, adding he didn’t take a cut.

Williams abruptly retired last March, right after May hired Bowers and Hyde to start their outside inquiry of county corruption.

May, who was a county commissioner at the time, said he knows nothing about the check or the money.

“I’ve never received that check. I never signed that check. I never received any money from that check. I was never aware of that check,” May has said.

Williams disputed Cotter’s account, but he has declined to provide details.

Williams didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, and Cotter declined to comment. A defense attorney for Cotter couldn’t be reached.

“All I’m going to say is that Doug participated fully with the people who investigated it, and nothing has changed regarding his position,” said Susan Brown, an attorney who represents Cotter’s business interests.

DeKalb police served search warrants on the county’s Department of Information Technology in September seeking archived email conversations involving May and Williams.

Since then, James’ office has had an open investigative review related to Cotter’s company, Water Removal Services, according to the county’s court website. No charges have been brought.

“We are working diligently, reviewing the facts in the case and the evidence involved in that case,” James said. “We’ll let the facts take us where they take us.”

Extortion

An allegation of extortion contained in the Bowers and Hyde corruption report is being handled by the DeKalb Police Department, which is investigating whether a county garbage collector took cash for extra pickups.

The allegation came from the owner of Juicy’s Joint nightclub near Decatur, who said a man identifying himself as “the trash guy” asked for $80 per month under the table to empty the bar’s trash bin twice a week instead of once, the AJC reported in November. If paying the county, twice-a-week service would normally cost an extra $175 per month.

The club paid the man $160 to cover two months in early 2015, according to notes by Jim Lunsford, an investigator for Bowers and Hyde. But when owner Wendell Robinson told him he didn’t need two weekly pickups anymore, he couldn’t get the consistent trash pickup that he once did.

“He knew it was about the money because the trash had not been picked up on a regular basis,” Lunsford wrote.

The path forward

It’s unclear whether other allegations in the Bowers and Hyde report are being reviewed by law enforcement. Prosecutors and police don’t discuss ongoing investigations before charges are filed.

“What we found is enough to indicate there’s something really wrong there that needs a thorough looking at for the purpose of prosecutions. Of that, there’s no doubt whatsoever,” Bowers said. “It’s a mess – it’s a total, complete mess.”

The report accused May of hindering the inquiry that he commissioned, improperly borrowing money from Williams and failing to provide leadership. May, who isn’t seeking election this year, rejected those charges.

In addition, the report questioned more than $537,000 in officials’ spending, especially their use of taxpayer money to benefit charities. Those expenses violate the Georgia Constitution’s ban on gratuities, the report said.

For example, Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton spent $1,100 on a portrait of President Barack Obama at a charity auction that benefited Africa’s Children’s Fund, and Commissioner Jeff Rader contributed $20,000 to Park Pride.

Commissioner Larry Johnson’s name was placed on a plaque as a “platinum donor” after he gave $11,500 in public funds to the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Center; and Commissioner Kathie Gannon’s name was inscribed on a brick at the Tucker-Reid H. Cofer Library after donating $100 to the DeKalb Library Foundation. Commissioner Stan Watson gave $2,475 to the Rotary of South DeKalb, according to the report.

While some residents may question if such spending is appropriate, it isn’t necessarily criminal if it’s related to a government purpose, James said.

“When you’re making decisions to charge people, you have to make sure you have your facts straight and make sure these are things you can prove in a court of law,” he said. “What would be good for the county now would be some relative calm where we don’t have accusations flying around. That would restore some public trust and confidence.”

The special investigation also included allegations of DeKalb employees driving while drunk, inefficiencies with county vehicle repair and wastefulness in an award of a single-source police radio contract.

When might other charges be coming, if at all?

State Rep. B.J. Pak, a former federal prosecutor whose work included investigations of government corruption, said timing could be a factor.

Federal prosecutors use their discretion when bringing charges, and removing someone from a position of power can achieve their goal, said Pak, R-Lilburn. In some cases, prosecutors ask officials to leave their jobs as part of agreements that allow them to avoid criminal charges.

“They generally have this unofficial rule that you don’t want to bring charges or do anything that influences an election, so sometimes they wait until after an election,” Pak said. “It takes time to circle the wagon around the target.”


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