AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Government insider got VIP treatment in DeKalb County

It was as if the stars had lined up for Vaughn Irons, chairman of DeKalb County’s Development Authority board.

First a phony Ethics Board opinion mysteriously showed up in the county’s contracting department, allowing Irons to bid for county work despite his conflict of interest as a government official. Then the county awarded his company, APD Solutions, a $1 million contract to rehab foreclosed homes, even though APD missed the cut by ranking fourth in the bidding process. Then the county gave APD an extra $500,000 to rehab more homes, without requiring another bid.

Irons has strongly denied involvement in concocting the fake legal document, saying he even paid for a polygraph test that proved his innocence. On Sunday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that once Irons had a contract, his company went on to charge DeKalb taxpayers $10,000 for a 140-foot backyard privacy fence – about five times what a fence of that length should cost.

County staffers don’t appear to have scrutinized that expense. Nor did they question tens of thousands of dollars in other charges that lacked backup documentation in the county’s files, or layers of fees for such tasks as processing invoices, interacting with the county and managing subcontractors.

You can read the AJC’s findings on the inflated and undocumented expenses here.

Also puzzling is why APD Solutions decided to spend the county’s federal stimulus grant money improving a neighborhood near the Rockdale County line – well outside the target area described in bid documents. County officials have explained that they wound up giving Irons money from a different pot of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds, so the bid parameters didn’t apply to him.

When APD Solutions sold its first rehabbed home in south DeKalb’s Piedmont Point subdivision, in March 2013, the company held a ceremony to hand the new homeowner her keys.

Irons was there, as was Commissioner Stan Watson, who Irons was paying $500 per month for consulting services at the time. They weren’t the only VIPs in attendance who were benefitting.

State Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick also attended and didn’t have far to travel. She owns a house just down the street.

Kendrick bought her house in 2008 for about $250,000. By 2013, her appraised value had plummeted to about half that amount, county records show. Houses on her street had been sitting empty and abandoned after the neighborhood developer went belly up in the housing market bust.

Kendrick says she never asked anyone to intervene in the neighborhood. She said she never talked to Irons about her problems, nor anyone in the DeKalb government. Not until after she got the invitation to the ceremony, anyway.

“I mean, anybody that probably wanted to hear me gripe probably heard that, because I was so upset about it,” Kendrick said. “But I don’t remember specifically talking to anybody on the commission about that particular neighborhood. And they would have had to actually look me up, because I just was complaining generally about the foreclosures in my neighborhood.”

She also said that what APD did – buying, completing, marketing and selling six houses – helped.

“What we were trying to do as an organization, or as neighbors, is try to get the actual houses completed, get houses up, because it just looked bad with all those gaps in it,” Kendrick said. “It helped, definitely, but it’s going to take a while for it to get back up to that pre-recession value.”

Also attending the 2013 ceremony: Commissioner Lee May, who has since become DeKalb’s interim CEO. After the AJC and Channel 2 Action News exposed the phony ethics document earlier this year, May said he would replace all the remaining members Development Authority board.

County commissioners are still mulling most of his nominees. And DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James still has the origins of the fishy document “under review,” according to a spokesman.

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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.