Reform slow to arrive in DeKalb County


Reform slow to arrive in DeKalb County

Recommended changes to government

  • Indict CEO Burrell Ellis. Status: Ellis’ trial is scheduled for September.
  • Investigate 11 other former government officials and vendors for criminal wrongdoing. Status: Unclear. The DeKalb district attorney’s office is aware of the special grand jury’s report, a spokesman said.
  • Eliminate DeKalb County’s powerful CEO position. Status: Under review.
  • Hire an internal auditor: Status: Stalled.
  • Reorganize purchasing and contracting. Status: Review of purchasing policies expected to be completed soon.
  • Eliminate the director of public safety position appointed by the CEO. Status: Interim CEO Lee May in December appointed Cedric Alexander to the position of Deputy Chief Operating Officer in charge of Public Safety. May has said the position will make the county safer.

Source: Special Purpose Grand Jury report

History of the DeKalb corruption case

Jan. 18, 2013: Special grand jury finishes its yearlong investigation of criminal activity related to a $1.35 billion upgrade of DeKalb County water and sewer systems.

June 18, 2013: DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis indicted on charges that he pressured county contractors into giving him campaign contributions. The special grand jury report was the blueprint for the indictment, said foreman Albert Trujillo. Ellis says he hasn’t done anything wrong.

July 16, 2013: Gov. Nathan Deal suspends Ellis and appoints Commissioner Lee May as interim CEO.

Aug. 21, 2013: Special grand jury report publicly released. The report includes more detailed allegations against Ellis and other public officials than those contained in his indictment.

Jan. 16: A new 14-count indictment charges Ellis with conspiracy, bribery, perjury and theft.

Sept. 8: Ellis’ trial is scheduled to begin.

When a stinging investigation of DeKalb County government alleged corruption from the top down, the special grand jury that ran the inquiry called for sweeping reforms.

The panel recommended criminal charges against government officials accused of bid rigging and theft. It suggested eliminating the powerful DeKalb County CEO position. It said independent internal audits and stronger contracting rules were needed.

One year after CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted, the charges against him remain the most significant action taken as a result of the special grand jury’s year-long investigation released last summer. None of the other 11 government employees and contractors has been indicted, and a proposal for an internal auditor position has stalled in committee.

Other initiatives, such as abolishing the county’s elected CEO and tightening purchasing policies, are still being considered. A review of contracting policies ordered by Interim CEO Lee May is expected to be completed soon.

Improving rules and regulations in DeKalb County’s government would help, but the long-term solution would be for voters to choose honest and accountable leaders, said Albert Trujillo, a retired IT consultant who served as the foreman of the special grand jury.

“No matter how many controls you have, if the guy at the top is a crook, then crooked things are going to happen,” Trujillo said. “When people underneath sense the county is crooked, it’s open season for them and it permeates the entire organization.”

Ellis, who was indicted June 18, 2013, has maintained his innocence on charges that he sought political donations from county vendors and threatened to punish firms that didn’t contribute. He faces trial in September, and one of his attorneys declined to comment, citing a judge’s gag order in the case.

It’s unclear whether charges will be brought against anyone else implicated in the special grand jury’s report, including ex-CEO Vernon Jones and other former county workers. DeKalb District Attorney Robert James is aware of the special grand jury’s recommendations, his spokesman said.

“The perception is that all of our leaders are corrupt,” said Aja Marie Pascale, director of DeKalb Citizens for Good Government. “We like that they’re talking about change, and they seem to be taking it seriously. Whether or not the same old faces can make change for the county remains to be seen.”

May, who became the county’s chief executive last July when Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Ellis, supports eliminating the CEO job. He appointed a task force that’s evaluating the CEO position.

DeKalb is the only county in Georgia that has a CEO, and the special grand jury said the CEO’s ability to oversee day-to-day government operations and spending exposes the county to shady practices. Most other counties hire an unelected county manager who is answerable to the county commission.

“DeKalb County for too long has been too personality-driven, from the head all the way down to the front-line employees,” May said. “If you can build a system that’s a transparent, open system, then those bad apples aren’t able to manipulate things as easily.”

The special grand jury also said government integrity would be improved if the county hired an independent internal auditor. The proposal to create an internal auditor hasn’t moved forward, despite stated support from most of the county’s six elected commissioners.

An internal auditor would evaluate funding, assess whether programs are working and identify structural weaknesses. Supporters of the internal auditor have said the position could have revealed a pattern if county contracts were being steered toward a politician’s supporters and away from perceived political enemies.

“The Audit Committee still needs to make a recommendation for a person to fill that position, and they’ve declined to do so. They just have not acted,” said Commissioner Jeff Rader.

Commissioner Larry Johnson, the commission’s presiding officer and a member of the committee, said he wants an internal auditor, and he didn’t know why the proposal hasn’t advanced.

“We need the proper checks and balances on our work,” he said.

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