AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Ethics chief wants feds, GBI and DA to investigate fake document

Developer Vaughn Irons wants the DeKalb Ethics Board to investigate itself – to determine why it never voted on the invalid document that let his company win a $1 million county contract, and how that document wound up filed with the county as if it were real .

Ethics Chairman John Ernst says he’ll do him one better.

On Friday, he sent letters requesting criminal investigations to acting U.S. Attorney John Horn and DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James. He also sent copies to the FBI, the GBI and state Attorney General Sam Olens.

“Someone fraudulently signed an ethics opinion and passed it around,” Ernst told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “Because of this, someone who was being told no is being told yes.”

In the letters, Ernst described the work of the AJC and Channel 2 Action News, whose investigation revealed that an invalid ethics opinion, dressed up to appear valid, helped Irons bid for federal stimulus funds. Irons' company had previously been shut out of the bid process, because the county's ethics code doesn't allow government officials to double as county contractors.

“The news pieces allege that unknown persons fabricated and/or forged an Ethics Board advisory opinion nearly 5 years ago to sanction a potential conflict of interest by sitting DeKalb County Development Authority Chairman Vaughn Irons,” the letter said.

(Actually, we believe the document was handed to the county in December 2011, less than four years ago.)

“If it is found that criminal activity took place,” the letter continued, “I additionally request prosecution of the guilty parties to bring them to justice.”

Irons has said he and his company, APD Solutions, did nothing wrong, and he maintains there was no conflict of interest in his bidding because his housing rehab contract didn’t overlap with his role in the Development Authority. He even offered to take a polygraph test, though he would not specify who, exactly, would administer it.

“No one at this company,” he said at a press conference Friday, “no one affiliated or associated with this company, was involved in any way, shape, or form in influencing, discussing, designing, delivering that opinion.”

DA Robert James’s office has already begun assembling the same documents the AJC and Channel 2 obtained, though the office stopped short of calling it an official investigation.

Commissioner Nancy Jester called for an FBI investigation last week and asked Irons to resign from the Development Authority by the close of business Friday.

He didn’t do that, but on Saturday interim CEO Lee May announced that he has already begun the process of replacing the entire board. In light of the allegations, they need a fresh start, his spokesman, Burke Brennan said. Irons and the others will stay on the board for now though, because May will need approval of the County Commission for his replacements.

In other words, anything May does could easily be blocked.

Another commissioner, Sharon Barnes Sutton, expressed resistance to doing anything immediately, and dealt out insults to the Channel 2 reporter who worked on Irons story, as well as stories last year questioning Sutton’s spending of taxpayer money.

“You can’t make decisions like that based on an investigative reporter who is not required to report the truth, not required to be accurate, not required to disclose all of the information,” Sutton said Friday. “They’re only required to raise the ratings for that TV station. A lot of it is similar to TMZ reporting.

“We don’t need to fly off the handle,” Sutton said, “making rash decisions based on something we saw on TV. That’s like saying, ‘Oh, it’s true because I saw it on the Internet.’ Well, come on, let’s be real and let’s be responsible commissioners, responsible people, and be reasonable in the way we govern this county.”

Here's what Ernst sent to the acting U.S. Attorney. (His letter to DA James is almost identical.)

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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.