DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James will convene a special grand jury next week to investigate allegations of corruption in the county’s water department that possibly could have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
James told Channel 2 Action News that he wants to examine every aspect of DeKalb Watershed’s bidding process while addressing claims of bid rigging and kickbacks involving the county and a contractor.
“It’s not just looking at people who may have had their hand in the cookie jar, as it were,” James said. “It looks to see how deep and how pervasive an issue or problem may be.”
The county alleges a contractor overbilled the water department by $3 million with the help of a supervisor who allegedly steered contracts to certain vendors working with one of the supervisor’s family members.
However, the attorney for contractor Paul Champion said those claims are a cover-up for alleged financial mismanagement and a kickback scheme involving upper-level managers at the county.
“If they dig deep enough, I think they will find there was some corruption both in stormwater management and in contracts and purchasing for the county,” attorney Bob Wilson said.
DeKalb hired Champion Tree Service to cut vegetation so another contractor could map the county’s stormwater and sewer lines in preparation for a substantial $1.35 billion overhaul of the system.
Champion filed a lawsuit last year, saying the county owed him more than $880,000 for his work. In counterclaims, the county said it stopped payment after an audit revealed multiple invoices for the same property and bills for larger areas than were designated for the work.
DeKalb next fired two watershed employees for their alleged role in approving the invoices. One was Nagmeh Maghsoudlou, a supervisor who oversaw the Champion contract. Her brother-in-law, Hadi Haeri, worked for Champion and other contractors, and also faces allegations of wrongdoing.
“There was a problem there and the county took action,” said Richard Stogner, the county’s chief operating officer. “If other people were taking advantage of the system and did wrong, we’d like to see them brought to justice.”
Wilson said the county’s claims against Champion and Maghsoudlou are diversionary tactics, meant to draw attention from the fact the county did not budget enough money for the mapping project.
He said Champion felt pressured by other county officials at a separate meeting to allegedly pay a share of his contract to ensure he would continue to get paid.
“We contend our client didn’t get paid because he wouldn’t grease anybody’s palm,” Wilson said.
The grand jury has the power to subpoena documents, compel witnesses to testify and hire experts to sift through the claims and counterclaims. The grand jury can meet for up to a year, though James said he hopes a review will require less time.
Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, recently likened people with pre-existing medical conditions to wrecked cars and appeared to suggest that the sick are at fault for their illnesses just as drivers are at fault for their accidents.