To understand the brazenness of the corruption alleged by a special DeKalb County grand jury, consider this: Officials awarded a $2.2 million-a-year tree-trimming contract to a fake company created by a Cartoon Network employee who didn’t so much as own a chain saw.
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Digging Deep. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has followed the investigation into DeKalb contracting for more than a year. The newspaper’s investigations have shed light on financial ties between suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and county contractors he’s been accused of shaking down for contributions. They have uncovered details about Ellis’ alleged tactics in persuading vendors to donate to his campaign. Some of the newspaper’s reporting is cited in the recently released special grand jury report that recommends removing Ellis from office and alleges a culture of corruption in DeKalb County contracting.
A culture of corruption
A special-purpose grand jury, consisting of two dozen DeKalb residents, heard from 89 witnesses and reviewed countless documents over a year to assemble its report, which was finalized in January. It was made public last week after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News formally asked a judge to release it, as it had been under seal. The report alleges corruption in DeKalb contracting spanning two administrations and various departments.
How it began
A bribery case. Dameco Moss, a fats, oil and grease inspector for DeKalb’s Department of Watershed Management, pleaded guilty in May 2011 to bribery and theft by taking for shaking down payments from restaurant owners. After that plea, a deputy director of the watershed agency, Jo Ann Macrina, approached DeKalb District Attorney Robert James’ office about what she suspected to be much more corruption in that department. Soon after, James assembled the special-purpose grand jury.
Grand jurors said they found evidence of contracting abuses across administrations and departments.
Overbilling. Alabama-based Champion Tree Service, which won nearly $9 million in DeKalb businesses, had inflated its invoices and billed the county for services it had not provided, the report says. It alleges the payments were facilitated by DeKalb employees with ties to former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones.
The sham company. Christian Vann, a Cartoon Network employee who didn’t even own a chain saw, created a fake company in 2006 and snagged a $2.2 million-a-year contract for tree trimming, even though Champion Tree Service would perform the work. Vann is now employed in Atlanta Public Schools’ communications department.
Illegally steering business to favored vendors. G4 Enterprises won more than $2.6 million in business from DeKalb between 2004-2007 in a circumvention of competitive-bidding rules, the report says. G4 was awarded a series of $50,000 contracts, which the report says were approved by Richard Stogner, then executive assistant to Jones.
Bid-rigging. Metals and Materials Engineering told the grand jury that its work with the DeKalb watershed department was drastically reduced after it fired Jeffrey Walker, whose twin brother John Walker was a watershed deputy director at the time. The company hired Jeffrey Walker at a salary of $8,000 a month in 2005. The company alleges that bidding for future contracts was rigged to deny M&ME business.
Bid-rigging. A $20 million contract awarded in 2007 to provide GPS coordinates for manhole covers went to a company that hired Hadi Haeri, whose sister-in-law, Nadine Maghsoudlou, was a deputy director at the water department. Citing a letter the grand jury reviewed, the report says Haeri was paid $100 an hour for his work and the company, Brown and Caldwell, could not direct or review Haeri’s work. Haeri ultimately collected as much as $1.2 million in fees from two county contractors.
Illegally steering business to favored vendors. In 2010, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis terminated a nearly $1 million contract with Judicial Correction Services, a probation services company, at the recommendation of his former campaign manager Kevin Ross. The campaign manager worked for a competing company, Sentinel Offender Services.
Bid-rigging. Ellis, the report says, instructed his chief of staff, Jabari Simama, to organize the selection of the employees who would hear bids and award contracts. Ellis would have final approval of the committee members, which would give him opportunity to influence the process. Ellis denied this in testimony to the grand jury.
Bid-rigging. The report also said Ellis influenced the contracting process by divulging bid details, which are supposed to remain secret as they are being evaluated, with a company Ross represented. That allowed the company to stay in the bid process, as the information Ellis provided gave it a competitive advantage.
Halting an investigation. A DeKalb police detective launched an investigation into alleged overbilling by Champion Tree Service in 2009. But by February 2010, the report says, Public Safety Director William “Wiz” Miller “stopped the investigation when it became obvious the investigation would include several county officials.”
Refusing to investigate. Former water department deputy director Charles Lambert stepped forward to cooperate with an investigation into the department’s contracting. The report says the police detectives refused to return Lambert’s calls after he met with Miller.
The employees, elected officials and key players in the DeKalb special-purpose grand jury report that alleges widespread corruption since at least 2006.
Under former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, who ran DeKalb from 200-2008, the key players are:
Former CEO Vernon Jones
Jones served as CEO between 2000 and 2008, and was the first African-American to hold the CEO job in DeKalb. The report claims Jones may have used his office to engage in bid-rigging. It says Jones and county employees with personal ties to him may have steered contracts to favored vendors and arranged jobs for their relatives as a condition of doing business with the county. The grand jury recommends a criminal investigation into Jones.
Former public safety director William ‘Wiz” Miller
The report recommends a criminal obstruction-of-justice investigation into allegations that Miller halted a DeKalb police investigation into bid-rigging in 2010.
Under suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, who ran DeKalb from 2008- until his July suspension, the key players are:
Former CEO Burrell Ellis
Ellis has been charged with 15 counts of attempted extortion, theft and conspiracy stemming from allegations that he strong-armed contractors into giving to his campaign. The grand jury investigation says Ellis engaged in bid-rigging by steering contracts to preferred companies.
Former chief of staff Jabari Simama
Simama, who served as chief of staff under Ellis, is accused in the report of manipulating the committees that award competitively bid contracts to influence the outcome. The report recommends a criminal investigation into possible bid-rigging.
Former Ellis campaign manager Kevin Ross
Ross ran Ellis’ first campaign for CEO, and the report accuses him of using his influence in the administration to steer contracts to clients he represented. Ross, an attorney who once worked for former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, worked as lobbyist for several companies seeking to do business with DeKalb. Two of the companies Ross represented won business with the county after Ellis canceled a competing company’s contract, the report says. The report recommends a criminal investigation into possible bid-rigging.