Kelvin Walton, his husky frame covered in a tailored suit and carefully matched tie, sat in the front row of a DeKalb County Commission meeting Tuesday.
Near the end, he walked to the podium with his ever-present clipboard to answer a commissioner’s query: Why was a company removed from the bidding process for a $6.5 million paving contract?
The vendor did not provide the required general contractor license, Walton, the county’s purchasing director, explained. Moments later, acting on his recommendation, the board unanimously approved the recommended bidder.
Four months after being named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the corruption case against county CEO Burrell Ellis, Walton remains on the job and retains the trust of elected officials as he oversees how tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on public contracts in DeKalb.
Walton, a 10-year-employee making $153,000, is expected to be the star witness in the case against his former boss. Walton was named in nine of 15 criminal counts against Ellis, allegedly gathering up the names and phone numbers of vendors so the CEO could hit them up for political contributions. Walton then conspired with Ellis to punish those who did not give, the indictment said. Ellis, who has been suspended, has strongly denied having done anything illegal.
Last week, prosecutors released dozens of hours of tape recordings to Ellis’ defense attorneys. Among those tapes would likely be recordings made by Walton, who secretly taped conversations with public officials, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The extent of what has been recorded is still being highly guarded by prosecutors. But a special-purpose grand jury report indicates Ellis was being recorded as early as August 2012, nearly five months before investigators searched his home and office.
In that recording, the grand jury alleges Ellis is trying to stack a contract evaluation committee with favorable members.
Nearly two months later, according to the indictment, Ellis told Walton to prevent a firm called NPI from receiving more county work because its owners did not contribute to his political campaign.
The grand jury report mirrors this alleged incident and quotes a bit of the taped conversation. The report noted: “Recordings indicate that CEO Ellis gave the directive (to a contracts and purchasing employee) to ‘Just dry them up,’ meaning to not issue any additional work to NPI under its contract.”
It is not clear what would have spurred Walton, listed by prosecutors as a witness in the case against Ellis, to cooperate. Walton testified before the grand jury and attorneys say prosecutors often wait to catch witnesses in a lie and then use the threat of a perjury charge to turn them into informers. Other times they discover illegal acts through an investigation and leverage the threat of prosecutions to gain cooperation.
People with knowledge of the investigation say tree trimmer Paul Champion claimed Walton asked him for a kickback.
Dekalb District Robert James has been very tight-lipped about this investigation and declined to speak for this story.
Naming an unindicted co-conspirator is a unusual and bold move, said veteran criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow, who is not connected with this case.
“It’s a Fear of God approach: ‘We’ll tell you and the public what we’ve got and it’s strong, overwhelming evidence,’ ” said Sadow.
He added having an insider like Walton would make him “a critical witness. You would expect an unknowing co-conspirator (Ellis) to reveal and disclose incriminating information to someone he believes is part of the plan.”
But naming Walton causes a problem, said Bob Wilson, a former Dekalb district attorney who represents Champion, who has sued the county and claims county officials tried to shake him down. The grand jury also recommended Champion be investigated for possible criminal infractions.
“How is he still the head of purchasing and contracting for Dekalb County? And yet the indictment insinuates he’s a crook? How the hell does that happen?” Wilson asked. “This guy is the head of purchasing and contracting for the county. There’s no job that could better go corrupt than that one.”
It seems a decade of building relationships has allowed the affable Walton to keep the trust of Ellis’ replacement, interim CEO Lee May.
May, in a prepared statement, said he will wait to reserve final judgment “until the facts are in.”
Walton declined to comment for this story. His attorney, Art Leach, would say only, “We’ll do all our talking in the court room.”
Prosecutors allege that in November 2011, Ellis, facing re-election in 2012, ordered Walton to create lists of DeKalb contractors so the CEO could call them to raise money for his campaign.
In the indictment, Ellis is accused of having Walton put a damaging note in the file of a contractor, Power and Energy Services, making it appear the firm was “unresponsive” to the county, when, in fact, the owners did not contribute to the CEO’s political campaign. The grand jury details that same event, noting a “purchasing and contracting employee” and saying conversations were taped.
DeKalb officials say they are concerned that Walton is accused of aiding in illegal actions. But most view him as following the orders of the CEO, who by county structure, has vast power in directing purchasing policy and awarding of deals. If Walton had refused to go along, they note, the CEO alone had the power to fire him.
Walton is a fixture in both public meetings and closed-door sessions in DeKalb. In fact, he probably gets more face time with elected officials than any other department head as he explains pending contracts.
Walton shows up early to work to make phone calls before numerous morning meetings clog his schedule. He is often seen roaming the six floors of the main government building.
One of his main duties is to handle the sealed bids that come in after requests are posted. Those bids are kept in Walton’s office, under lock and key, until the bid deadline arrives. Then, in a public display in a second-floor conference room, Walton oversees, or handles himself, the opening of the seals and reading of each firm’s submission.
Those bids are then assigned to a selection committee, to review their quality. It is at that stage, the grand jury report alleges, that Ellis began interfering by dictating who should be placed on selection committees and by discussing secret information with committee members during the evaluation process.
“He’s always been responsive and forthcoming, and if he doesn’t know an answer, he will find out,” said Commissioner Elaine Boyer. “I can’t make assumptions about what evidence he has or there is against him. From where I sit, he’s never lied to me.”
Walton joined DeKalb in 2003, having served as a chief assistant in the Fulton County purchasing department. He is credited with earning DeKalb’s purchasing office its first national award, for excellence in procurement, in 2006.
His tenure was not without problems. Two separate audits show that in 2007, he approved multiple sub-$50,000 payments to vendors. Auditors ruled the contracts were “split” to avoid the threshold triggering competitive bidding.
But they also concluded Walton had initially raised objections to the move and, like what many think now, was acting on orders of a higher-up.
In 2008, then-Commissioner Burrell Ellis, who was running for CEO, said he believed Richard Stogner, the county’s top manager, and other officials intentionally bypassed the commission. “I think there was a clear intent to do what they did, which was wrong, ” Ellis said.
No charges were filed in that case and Ellis, after being elected CEO, hired Stogner as his chief assistant.
Not long after a stream of sub-$50,000 went out, Walton was given the highest possible rating on a job evaluation and was listed as “a valuable member of the team” who leads by example” and “has gone beyond the call of duty in meeting with vendors/contractors/citizens to explain the procurement process.
And as 2007 ended he was promoted to be the department’s acting director.
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. 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.
Illegally steering business to favored vendors. G4 Enterprises won more than $2.6 million in business from DeKalb between 2004-2007 by circumventing 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 claims 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.
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 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.
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.
Digging Deep. Since a special-purpose grand jury report was released this summer that alleges widespread corruption in DeKalb County contracting, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been working hard to measure the fallout. The AJC is focused on in-depth reporting on what happens to those responsible for the corruption and on how DeKalb might fix the problem.