State worker fraud delays north Fulton highway widening

Georgia DOT says employee falsified right-of-way records
Aerial view of  Ga. 9. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Aerial view of Ga. 9. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The widening of a highway in north Fulton County may be on hold for three years because a state employee falsified scores of property acquisitions needed to complete the project, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

A contractor had already begun clearing trees and brush for the widening of Ga. 9 in Milton when GDOT discovered it owned only five of the 139 parcels it needed. The agency has since ordered the contractor to stop work.

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said the employee responsible for acquiring the parcels didn’t complete the work, then falsified internal documents to make it appear that it had been done. Dale said there appears to have been no financial motive for the falsified documents — the agency has not paid for any of the properties it thought it had acquired.

But a GDOT investigation has already found false right-of-way documentation on four other projects the employee worked on. Dale said the employee, who was paid $75,000 a year, has been fired, and the investigation continues. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not naming the employee because no charges have been filed.

“There is no financial gain. There is no kickback. There is no way for this money to flow to anyone personally,” Dale said. “No money was flowing. This seems to be just a very poor, unethical decision made by one employee of the department.”

GDOT plans to widen a 3-mile stretch of Ga. 9 from Windward Parkway to the Forsyth County line. The $62.5 million project would widen the highway to four lanes and include a pedestrian and bike trail. Preliminary work began recently, and the project was expected to be done in 2027.

But GDOT discovered it did not own most of the properties needed for the project after one of the affected owners contacted the agency. Dale said a review of that property found it had never been acquired, though internal documents indicated it had.

The investigation subsequently found the employee responsible had also falsified internal records for most of the other properties. Dale said the employee also told external attorneys who review property transactions for GDOT that the Ga. 9 project was on hold, so there were no documents to review.

GDOT later broadened its investigation to all properties the employee had handled since 2015. The agency found a handful of falsified property acquisitions for four other projects: a Maynard Terrace roundabout in DeKalb County, an Oakley Road bridge replacement in Fulton, a Mercer Drive bridge replacement in DeKalb and a Briarcliff Road bridge replacement in DeKalb.

Those projects will see minor delays. But the biggest impact will be on the Ga. 9 widening. Dale said GDOT cannot proceed with construction on any project until all properties needed have been acquired. That means the agency must start the acquisition process from scratch.

The financial impact of the fraud is unclear, Dale said. Owners may have changed and some properties may have been subdivided. She said the parcels in question for the most part are just slivers of properties — not entire lots.

Dale said the falsified records were isolated to one employee who had previously done good work for the agency. She said that GDOT has acquired 2,600 parcels across 86 projects in metro Atlanta over the past decade without similar problems.

Dale could provide no motive for the employee’s actions. GDOT, the attorney general and the state inspector general are investigating the incidents.

The agency also is reviewing its right-of-way acquisition processes to close loopholes and ensure the employee’s actions cannot be repeated, Dale said.

“We have taken swift action in investigating, in working through our policies and procedures to make sure this cannot happen again,” she said.

In a statement released Tuesday, Milton officials urged GDOT to “clean up properties where fences, trees, and other vegetation were taken down and to promptly improve the viewshed in those areas.”

“We’re already reaching out to state leaders for answers and expect productive conversations to ensure that Milton citizens and businesses are heard and their best interests are served,” Mayor Peyton Jamison said.