A special purpose grand jury told a Clayton County judge Tuesday there is more corruption and malfeasance in local government that needs to be investigated and urged him to appoint another panel to finish the work they started.
“We, as a grand jury, felt it shouldn’t be ended,” foreman Walter Nix told Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons of the grand jury that was put in place 2 1/2 years ago. “They need to dig deep, in different areas.”
Claude Tate, the assistant foreman of the jury, agreed, saying there needs to be more “digging into the finance and IT departments.”
The special purpose grand jury submitted a 18-page report that addressed issues in six areas of Clayton government: employees of the Sheriff’s Office in the years 2005 through 2008 and Sheriff Victor Hill, the failed Olde Towne Morrow development beside Interstate 75, Lovejoy’s city elections, the Clayton County Water Authority and the Clayton County Board of Commissioners and finance department.
“The evidence led this body to conclude that people elected and hired for the public trust were irresponsible in using the power of their office to hire friends or family and/or to use money or resources for personal interests, all to the detriment of the citizens,” grand juror Kimberly Thompson said Tuesday, reading from a portion of the report.
It was disheartening and hard for me to read,” Clayton Commission chair Jeff Turner, a former Clayton police chief, said Tuesday. “We’re moving this county forward and this could be a setback for us. But in all honesty, especially with me having been a 23-year employee of the county prior to being elected, the findings weren’t really a shock to me.”
Turner said the current commission has “already changed a number of our policies and procedures which is right in line with the grand jury’s recommendations. I hope everyone who reads this report - including government and elected officials - can start to handle themselves accordingly.”
The 23-member racially-diverse panel, many of whom are long-time county residents, met more than 70 days since it was created in April 2011, earning $25 a day. District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson estimates the special grand jury’s work should “end up saving taxpayers millions” if county officials adopt their recommendations. Already their work has prompted commissioners to initiate a yet-to-be released independent audit of the finance department.
The report will be given to all Superior Court judges and county commissioners. The grand jurors said they have seen some improvement since a new chairman and a new member joined the five-person board in January. But they said they were still concerned. Some of the grand jurors told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that when they looked into the inner workings of county government they saw things that broke their hearts.
“I wish we could have done more and been a little more specific,” Arlandus Sumlin Jr., who served as doorkeeper for the grand jury, said in an interview. “There are still some things in government that need attention ….Every time we turned over a stone, you find something else. Sometimes you just don’t want to know. I’ll never be the same.”
The report didn’t include names though in many instances it was clear to whom the criticisms were directed.
District Attorney Lawson declined to say if there would be any criminal charges beyond those that have already been brought. “There are still ongoing investigations,” she said.
Lawson said grand jurors sorted though reams of documents and heard from 120 witnesses. At least 10 elected or top appointed officials refused to testify, citing their Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination. She declined to name them because work within the grand jury room is considered secret.
Most of their report focused on the county commission and offered nearly 60 recommendations for the board.
The grand jurors offered specific suggestions for being more open – such as posting meeting agendas – days in advance and said they should stop using their offices for personal gain. One recommendation said commissioners should not have “unrestricted use of county property, cell phones, cars (and) iPads” and they should limit appointments to one person to one board and be sure there are no conflicts of interest.
Already, a former manager with the Water Authority has pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury and is on five years probation, charges are pending against the former Morrow city manager and one-time council member John Lampl and former Lovejoy Mayor Joe Murphy resigned to avoid criminal charges. Sheriff Victor Hill also was indicted but he was acquitted in August of 27 felony charges of using his office for persona gain. The charges against two other former Sheriff’s Office employees were dropped after Hill was acquitted because the cases against them were similar to the one against Hill.
“Our voices should be heard without fear or dread of our governing officials,” the grand jurors wrote. “We hope to convey that the citizens of Clayton County expect a government of honesty, integrity and transparency for all the citizens.”