Lawsuit alleges commissioner shakedown over state lease

A seemingly simple task of finding a new home for a state agency in Gwinnett County has turned into a legal mess including allegations of a shakedown by a county commissioner, leaked corporate secrets and a criminal investigation.

The owner of a Gwinnett County property who lost a bid to house the local office of the Division of Family and Child Services says in a lawsuit that County Commissioner John Heard demanded $240,000 a year to help Hand Properties land the lease.

Heard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Fred Hand’s claims are a “lie,” but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI have interviewed Hand, according to documents filed with the lawsuit. Heard said neither agency has talked to him. The GBI referred questions to the federal authorities, and an FBI spokesman said the bureau could not comment.

Meanwhile, a state leasing specialist was fired after the lawsuit revealed he provided details of Hand’s bid to a competitor who temporarily won the lease. That award was revoked and the State Properties Commission has decided to start over while DFCS remains without a new home in Gwinnett.

Hand sued the State Properties Commission and the leasing specialist on March 1 in Fulton County Superior Court. The commission refused to comment. It is being represented by Attorney General Sam Olens’ office. An Olens spokeswoman also declined to comment.

In his lawsuit, Hand says he spoke with Heard on March 13, 2012, after learning of the state’s request for space. Hand did not return a phone message Wednesday seeking comment.

“John Heard stated to Fred Hand his ability to ‘deliver the contract’ … to a bidder who would make payments to him out of the proceeds of rent payments received from the state,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Heard told Mr. Hand that ‘I own this lease, boy!’ ”

The suit claims Heard demanded $240,000 a year for 15 years “to deliver the lease to Hand Properties, telling Mr. Hand that failure to pay would ‘guarantee you will not get this lease.’ ”

Hand refused, the suit says. Hand’s attorney did not return a request for comment.

Heard told the AJC that he was “infuriated” when he heard the allegation. He believes that the accusation was made because he is an easy target, given the history of corruption in recent years involving Gwinnett County commissioners. “Nobody’s going to believe a county commissioner,” he said.

Heard, an architect and planner, said he learned of the state’s request for bids and that he and a real estate broker contacted Hand to see whether Hand would sell him the Grayson Highway property if he won the contract. Heard said Hand declined and submitted his own bid.

“After Hand was informed that he did not win the contract he lied, telling the state that I had asked him for a bribe,” Heard said. “I was shocked and angered to read these lies, motivated solely in an effort by him to get a state contract.”

Heard said Hand’s claim doesn’t make sense as a county commissioner has no role in where the state decides to locate a state agency.

The commissioner did acknowledge that he ultimately submitted a proposal to the state with another property. He said that was not a conflict of interest because the county has no involvement in awarding the bid.

“This is a state contract,” Heard said. “The property is located within the city limits of Lawrenceville, so it’s governed by the city. The county … is uninvolved.”

The suit also claims that a State Properties Commission employee gave Hand Properties’ bid to a representative of Brand Properties, which ultimately was awarded the lease. The commission has since committed to submitting new bids for the office.

Bids for contracts or leases are supposed to remain confidential until after a contract is awarded, and the commission first denied that any of its employees acted improperly.

But in its response to the lawsuit, the commission acknowledges that its employee, Thad Jackson, provided the bid documents to Steve Tedder of Live Oak Property Advisors, who was working for Brand Properties.

Tedder told the AJC he did not ask for the documents and said they were attached to information Jackson sent him to fill out and return. The message “included stuff I wasn’t supposed to see,” Tedder said. “It was included in there, I think, accidentally. I guess we were accidentally able to see things we shouldn’t.”

But, according to a copy of an email attached to the lawsuit, Tedder and Jackson spoke by phone and discussed the contents of Hand’s bid.

“I’d suggest that we then walk through the spreadsheet via phone and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their proposal,” Tedder wrote Jackson in December, according to the email.

Efforts to reach Jackson were unsuccessful. He was fired March 18 and was interviewed by the GBI.

This isn’t the first controversy for Heard, a three-term state representative who was first elected to the County Commission in 2010.

Last year his role with a developer, Nilhan Hospitality, came into question after the developer began negotiating the final terms of a deal to build a 300-room Marriott Hotel at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth. Heard, a member of the convention bureau board when Nilhan submitted its proposal, was paid $60,000 for six months of work last year as a consultant for a company affiliated with the developer.

An affidavit from the company says Heard played an “insignificant” role in the proposed hotel, and that he was not paid for his vote on the proposal. The commissioner has since stepped down from the convention bureau’s board and has said he will recuse himself from any upcoming vote by the commission.

Several Gwinnett County commissioners have had problems in the past.

Shirley Lasseter resigned from the commission and pleaded guilty last year to taking a $36,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for her support of a proposed development in her district on Boggs Road. She is serving a 33-month prison sentence.

Also last year, developer Mark Gary pleaded guilty to bribery for giving Lasseter and her son $30,000 in casino chips in exchange for her 2009 vote for a solid waste transfer station that Gary planned to develop. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

And in 2010, Kevin Kenerly was indicted on a bribery charge involving allegations that while on the commission he accepted $1 million to secure approval of a land purchase for the benefit of developer David Jenkins. Kenerly denies the charge and is awaiting trial.

That same year, Charles Bannister resigned as the County Commission chairman to avoid a perjury indictment in connection to the Kenerly case.

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