Mike Bowers glared into the television cameras, cast again in a familiar role: Georgia’s preeminent corruption-buster.
“We’re going to root out conflicts of interest, corruption, malfeasance and misfeasance,” Bowers said, his index finger wagging, “so help me God.”
Thus began an investigation of unprecedented scope into alleged corruption in DeKalb County, the state’s fourth most-populous county and, arguably, its leading producer of government fraud, waste and graft. Bowers, a former state attorney general, and investigator Richard Hyde would have broad authority to identify DeKalb’s miscreants and bring them to justice.
But their efforts were repeatedly undermined by top county officials, some of whom had come under scrutiny themselves, an examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows. The officials declared some targets off limits, refused to answer questions or provide documents, called in other investigators to supplant Bowers and Hyde, and finally cut the investigation out of the county budget.
Now, after a contentious week in which the investigators described DeKalb as “rotten to the core” and county officials accused Bowers and Hyde of padding their bills through an unending inquisition, the investigation seems on the verge of a spectacular implosion. Lee May, the county’s interim CEO, ordered a final report by Aug. 26 — and nothing else. May hired the investigators in March but soon came under suspicion over a check written to him by a county vendor.
Bowers and Hyde came to this investigation after helping expose the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, the largest in U.S. history. In DeKalb, though, they encountered immutable resistance and hostility, even as officials promised to fracture the county’s culture of corruption.
A simmering mutual distrust erupted Tuesday. Bowers went to a county commission meeting, intending to present an update on the investigation. But he quickly left, obviously angry, when he learned he wouldn’t be allowed to speak. Bowers’ presentation would have overshadowed a vote on a high-profile project: incentives worth $12 million for billionaire Arthur Blank’s organization to build a practice complex for Atlanta’s new Major League Soccer team.
A day later, Bowers and Hyde sent May a 2 1/2-page letter that broadly described their findings so far: runaway spending on items “from petty to the absurd,” an alleged bribery scheme, a cover-up of the theft of county property. They labeled the letter “investigative update,” but it read more like an indictment.
“We have been around government employees and elected officials for over 40 years,” they wrote. “We have investigated and prosecuted public officials and others, often at the highest levels of government in our state. The DeKalb County government we have found is rotten to the core. The misconduct starts at the top and has infected nearly every department we have looked at.”
May responded with a letter blasting the investigators’ “tone” and challenging their veracity, saying they had unleashed “generalized personal attacks on the entire county workforce.” If their final report follows the same theme, he said, Bowers’ law firm, Balch & Bingham, will bear “legal responsibility for all of your actions.”
By the end of the week, Bowers and Hyde were not speaking publicly. Through a spokeswoman, May declined to be interviewed.
County commissioners complained in interviews of investigation-fatigue. Years of corruption prosecutions have landed several officials, most notably CEO Burrell Ellis and former Commissioner Elaine Boyer, in prison. Four separate entities – the special investigators, the FBI, the district attorney’s office and the county’s Board of Ethics – had open inquiries. Several commissioners applauded May’s effort to rein in Bowers and Hyde.
But Commissioner Nancy Jester, who represents north DeKalb, said May created the monster he now wants to slay.
“What did he think was going to happen when he said, ‘Investigate us from top to bottom?’” Jester said. “I think the investigation is too close to something, something that he’s uncomfortable with.”
A brief history of scandal in DeKalb County in the 21st century:
A newly elected sheriff was assassinated in 2000, on orders of the corrupt incumbent he had unseated.
A kickbacks-for-contracts scheme flourished, according to a grand jury, while Vernon Jones was the county’s CEO from 2001 through 2008.
In 2013, a school-construction scandal ended with a guilty plea from a former school superintendent, Crawford Lewis, and prison terms for his chief operating officer and her former husband.
And so far this year, both Boyer and Ellis have entered prison, the FBI has continued looking into payoffs, and county prosecutors have pored over a grand jury report outlining corruption schemes big and small.
It was in this image-tainting environment that May, appointed interim CEO after Ellis’ indictment in 2013, decided to authorize an independent investigation. Appearing at a news conference with Bowers on March 18, he seemed to fully appreciate the upheaval that could result.
“He’s a man that takes no prisoners and will do what it takes to preserve the public’s confidence and integrity in our government,” May said.
He added: “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.”
In fact, the investigators soon began looking into allegations involving May.
The Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported that May received a $4,000 check from a company the county hired to clean up damage from a sewer-line backup at his home. Five months later, the county awarded the company a $300,000 contract. May has said he never received the check or its proceeds.
But on April 15, according to documents obtained by the Journal-Constitution and Channel 2, an investigator met with a source “regarding knowledge of construction and restoration services … relating to a flood at the home of Lee May.”
Twelve days later, Hyde also interviewed a witness about the same work, the documents indicate. It is not clear whether both interviews were with the same person.
By the end of April, the documents show, the investigators had gathered information from at least 12 confidential informants. This led them to examine several large county contracts, including ones for mobile communications, for garbage receptacles provided to residences, and for the purchase of motor vehicles. The investigators showed special interest in three county agencies: the sanitation, watershed and fleet management departments.
They also began investigating allegations of a bribe paid to a specific county official, identified in documents only as “#5.”
Within weeks, according to bills submitted to the county, the investigators compiled an astonishing amount of documentation. By April 20, material provided by 10 confidential informants filled three binders, each with 1,200 pages.
As eager as whistleblowers were to talk, though, high-ranking DeKalb officials wanted nothing to do with the investigation.
On July 28, Bowers had a letter hand-delivered to Robert James, DeKalb’s district attorney. It was a request under Georgia’s Open Records Act to obtain public documents showing how James and 12 of his current or former employees had used their county-issued purchasing cards. The request – one that any citizen could make – seemed straightforward. But not to James.
The district attorney already viewed the special investigators’ work as a waste of taxpayers’ money – especially when his Public Integrity Unit needed more funding to clear a backlog of corruption cases. Two years ago, a special grand jury recommended criminal investigations of a dozen officials and contractors; so far, James’ office has tried only Ellis.
So James balked. He didn’t make the requested documents available within three days, as state law requires, and did not communicate with Bowers. Instead, he complained directly to May.
In interviews last week, James said the CEO told him he didn’t have to comply with Bowers’ request because May’s executive order authorizing the investigation did not cover the district attorney’s office. May followed up with a letter on July 31.
“Dear Robert,” it began. “I would like to sincerely apologize for the recent letter you received from the special investigators regarding the open records request. I will be reaching out to the special investigators to inform them that this action is beyond the scope of the executive order.”
While the executive order didn’t specify the district attorney’s office for investigation, it didn’t exclude it, either. And it was Bowers, not May, who requested the documents. Bowers and Hyde told the county commission last week that department heads who ignored open records requests “today are in violation of state law.”
James bristled at that suggestion.
“Mr. Bowers works for the CEO’s office, correct?” he said Friday. “And Mr. Bowers is asking on behalf of the CEO’s office, correct? … Mr. Bowers is the agent of the CEO’s office. When the person that has the authority tells us that he is rescinding the order, and then he sends out a letter saying it’s beyond the scope, I haven’t violated any laws.”
For the sake of what he called “transparency,” James sent the material Bowers requested to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation – which had not asked for the documents and apparently was not looking into DeKalb’s county government.
“If I’m going to give that information over, I’m going to give it over to the appropriate authorities and not a paid consultant,” James said. “We’re not hiding anything. I’m just not going to participate in an investigation I don’t agree with.”
The GBI has opened a preliminary inquiry at James’ request, said Sherry Lang, a spokeswoman for the agency.
So now five investigations are underway.
When they began work in DeKalb, Bowers and Hyde were fresh off their house-cleaning investigation of the Atlanta schools. Their work in Atlanta provided a foundation for a criminal case that ended with guilty verdicts for 11 former educators and guilty pleas from 21 others.
But in Atlanta, they had subpoena power to compel witnesses to give statements under oath. They had dozens of GBI agents at their disposal to interview teachers and principals across the city. And they had an unwavering commitment from the man who commissioned their inquiry: then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.
In DeKalb, May set the parameters for their work. That created complications the investigators would have faced in Atlanta only if they had been appointed by the school superintendent, Beverly Hall, who was later charged with racketeering for her role in the cheating scandal.
“Lee wanted to sort of make it feel like what happened at APS, because that was the beginning of the cleanup at APS,” DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader of west-central DeKalb said. “But the circumstances are different and, moreover, Lee was apparently exerting some discretionary authority over what (Bowers) was investigating. That’s not what the governor did.”
So even though Bowers and Hyde made what seemed to be a pointed reference to May in their letter to the commission – “the misconduct starts at the top” – the CEO and his allies focused on the more picayune misdeeds the investigators cited.
The letter said officials used purchasing cards to buy a Christmas tree, to pay an entertainer, to cover a cruise to the Bahamas. But May and commissioners shot back with explanations: the tree may have been a lobby decoration for a county building, the entertainer performed at an official gathering, the cruise was a customer-service award for a county employee.
“I would have expected more professionalism,” Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson of southeast DeKalb said of the investigators’ letter. “If there’s any wrongdoing (Bowers has) found, I’d like to see it in the report and given to the appropriate authorities. But to indict an entire county as rotten to the core, I feel that’s a little irresponsible.”
Complaints also mounted about the investigation’s cost. Through June, Bowers’ law firm had charged the county $673,504, based on hourly rates as high as $400.
So far, the county has paid less than half the firm’s bill – a fact that May suggested could have motivated the investigators’ inflammatory letter to the commission.
But Viola Davis, a citizen watchdog who leads the DeKalb Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter group, said she had received tips from county employees about matters similar to those cited in the investigators’ letter.
“To tell you the truth,” Davis said, “a lot of this stuff needs to be handled by the FBI, because it’s so easy to come up with excuses and try to cover it up.”