Forged $4K check results in guilty pleas in DeKalb corruption case

9:39 p.m Thursday, June 22, 2017 Local
A $4,000 check was written by DeKalb County contractor Doug Cotter, right. Cotter has said he gave the money to former DeKalb Commission Chief of Staff Morris Williams, center, to help Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, left, with financial difficulties. May says he never saw or knew about the money. Cotter and Williams pleaded guilty Thursday, June 22, 2017. Photo illustration by Josh Wade / Channel 2 Action News.

The case of a forged $4,000 check and an alleged conspiracy to steal DeKalb County taxpayers’ money ended Thursday with plea deals that left a key question unresolved: Where did the cash go?

The mystery that cast a shadow over former DeKalb County CEO Lee May for months might never be dispelled, even with Doug Cotter and Morris Williams’ guilty pleas. Though May was never charged with a crime and he has repeatedly said he never received money, there was speculation that the check — written to him but endorsed by an unknown person — was a kickback.

Meanwhile, Cotter and Williams were being investigated for allegedly forging May’s name and felony theft. Thursday, the men were convicted of lesser charges — Cotter, misdemeanor theft by taking; and Williams, misdemeanor obstruction.

It was one of the most substantial remaining corruption cases in a county mired in years of scandal, with more than 40 elected officials and government employees found guilty, including former Commissioner Elaine Boyer and former CEO Burrell Ellis. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned Ellis’ conviction in November.

Cotter, a county contractor, agreed to reimburse DeKalb $4,000 as part of his sentence. But, his attorney said, Cotter only pleaded guilty to conclude the case and maintains his innocence.

“What happened to the $4,000 in cash is not clear,” said Senior Assistant District Attorney Chris Timmons in court Thursday. “Mr. Cotter says he gave it to Mr. Williams to give to Mr. May, but for whatever reason he indicated he didn’t check with Mr. May to see what happened to that money. … It was likely that the money ended with either Mr. Cotter or Lee May.”

KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Doug Cotter (shown in April 2015), the man who arranged the repairs at Lee May’s home, previously said the $4,000 was intended to help May with his personal financial problems. -- Text by AJC staff reporters

May, who left office in December, didn’t return a phone message Thursday seeking comment. May said last year he was a victim whose reputation was damaged by the allegations.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News first reported suspicions surrounding the transaction in April 2015.

The case arose after repairs were made to May’s home as a result of a December 2010 raw sewage spill that flooded his basement. May was a county commissioner at the time.

The county determined the spill was its responsibility. It then paid Cotter’s company, Alpharetta-based Water Removal Services, $6,500 for the repairs, even though he had agreed to do the work at cost, or $2,500.

Cotter wrote a $4,000 check — representing the difference between the amounts — to May. May didn’t cash the check and gave it to Williams, who returned it to Cotter, who cashed it at a liquor store owned by his family.

That’s where the money trail went cold. Prosecutors couldn’t establish where the money went after the check was cashed.

The check bore May’s signature on the endorsement line, but it doesn’t match his handwriting.

Though Cotter is repaying the money, he’s not admitting to wrongdoing. Cotter entered what’s known as an Alford plea, in which a defendant maintains his innocence but acknowledges it’s in his best interest to enter the plea.

“We just believe it’s a disposition that’s in the best interest of everyone involved,” said Cotter’s attorney, Steven Frey, after the court hearing. “We’re looking forward to getting this behind us.”

Williams’ lawyers said the $4,000 had nothing to do with a kickback or a conspiracy to overbill the county.

“This is the end of an ugly chapter of political infighting in DeKalb County,” said Odis Williams, an attorney for Morris Williams. “The ridiculousness of this indictment is a reflection of how ugly it’s been in DeKalb.”

WSB-TV
Morris Williams, former chief of staff to the DeKalb County Commission and former deputy chief operating officer over public works and infrastructure

Both Cotter and Williams originally faced felony charges of theft and conspiracy that could have resulted in maximum sentences of 30 years imprisonment.

Prosecutors agreed to the reduced penalty in large part because of potential issues with the case, such as the possibility of having to disclose the identity of a confidential source during a trial and the statute of limitations. Besides Cotter’s repayment of the $4,000, both Cotter and Williams were ordered to pay $1,000 fines, serve one year on probation and work 80 hours of community service.

“We believe the restitution paid by defendant Cotter, the acknowledgement of criminal wrongdoing by both defendants, who are no longer employed by or engaged in business dealings with our county, along with the other terms of the plea agreement, is a just result,” said DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston in a statement.

DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader said he’s disappointed prosecutors didn’t delve further into whether this kind of alleged overbilling and kickback scheme was used on other occasions to defraud the public.

“It would be great to know why they think it’s an isolated incident and not part of a larger pattern of behavior,” Rader said. “How else could that mechanism have been exploited? It’s a shame that story wasn’t told.”

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