DeKalb still contracting with company founded by woman guilty of PPP fraud

Chandra Norton pled guilty to federal charges in 2020
DeKalb Watershed Management spent days fixing this sewage spill on Eagle’s Beek Circle near Stonecrest in August 2017. County officials say that new leadership, debris removal and increased inspections helped reduced sewer spills this year. AJC file photo

DeKalb Watershed Management spent days fixing this sewage spill on Eagle’s Beek Circle near Stonecrest in August 2017. County officials say that new leadership, debris removal and increased inspections helped reduced sewer spills this year. AJC file photo

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect new information in documents provided Thursday evening.

The founder of a company responsible for millions of dollars in important DeKalb County water and sewer work was indicted in 2020, accused of conspiring to defraud the federal government out of nearly $8 million in relief funds meant to prop up small businesses during the pandemic.

Federal prosecutors say Chandra Norton and an unnamed second party applied for the money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), then used it for personal purchases, including a $172,000 Range Rover. Norton has pled guilty and is a cooperating witness for the federal government.

DeKalb officials became aware of the indictment last year and have continued contracting with Norton’s CamKen Consulting. They say Norton no longer owns the company and, over the last two years or so, has not profited from any work in the county.

But documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act suggest Norton merely transferred her ownership stake in the company to her husband, as the company continued performing work for the county’s historically scandal-plagued water and sewer departments.

And additional legal filings raise even more questions about the businesses practices of Norton, CamKen and yet another company under contract to repair and replace some of DeKalb’s most vital infrastructure — including sewer repairs mandated by a federal consent decree.

A DeKalb spokesman said that, while the offenses Norton has admitted to are not related to government contracts, the county will “fully cooperate with all federal investigations as appropriate.”

Norton was charged with a single count of federal wire fraud conspiracy in a criminal information handed down in August 2020.

The nine-page charging document, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, accuses her of conspiring with an unnamed “Individual 1″ to file nearly a dozen “false and fraudulent” PPP loan applications, an initiative intended to keep small businesses afloat amid the crush of COVID-19.

According to authorities, Norton requested funds through five different corporate entities, including CamKen Consulting, and lied about them having employees or paying independent contractors. She certified that the money would be used for eligible expenses like payroll, lease and utility payments when, in reality, “she intended to divert the funds that she obtained from the program for her personal use and benefit,” the documents say.

At least five of the loans Norton and “Individual 1″ requested between April and May 2020 were ultimately provided, totaling more than $7.8 million.

Authorities allege the $172,000 for the Range Rover was pulled from a loan tied to Linear Earth LLC — a corporation registered to Norton’s husband, Reginald, the man to whom she transferred her ownership stake in CamKen.

It is unclear if Chandra Norton applied for the loan on behalf of Linear Earth, or if she has a stake in the company.

She has been ordered to forfeit the vehicle and repay the remaining millions, including an undisclosed amount that was allegedly wired to “an investment brokerage account she controlled.”

A DeKalb spokesman said the county learned of Norton’s charges in March 2021, about seven months after they were filed. But he provided no further details about how that discovery was made or who within the county administration may have known.

The spokesman confirmed that the county has made payments to CamKen Consulting as recently as last month, but said the government had “been provided with paperwork documenting a stock transfer that occurred in July 2020 by which Ms. Norton transferred the entirety of her interest” in the company.

The county’s original statement did not identify to whom that stock was transferred. But paperwork later provided to the AJC showed Norton had transferred all 100 shares of CamKen Consulting to her husband.

Asked if county officials are OK with that arrangement, the county did not directly answer. In an emailed statement, it said it had “taken a closer look at the relationship” between Chandra Norton and the businesses currently under contract with the county and had “taken steps to obtain current documentation of the various ownership interests to protect the best interests of the county.”

“The Administration is taking further steps to ensure that Ms. Norton will not be eligible to work on any DeKalb County contracts until she has paid her debt to society,” the statement said.

Norton, meanwhile, is scheduled to be sentenced next month. Though that could change.

She pleaded guilty in Nov. 2020 but further proceedings have repeatedly been postponed because Norton is “assisting the government in the investigation and prosecution of others,” according to court filings.

“Ms. Norton’s cooperation is ongoing and not yet complete,” her attorney, Randy Chartash, wrote in his most recent request for a deferred hearing.

A DeKalb County Watershed worker posts sewage spill notifications on along Miriam Lane near Gena Drive in Decatur, where frequent sewage overflow occurrences have been cited. DeKalb County is still tackling ongoing sewer issues since CEO Michael Thurmond took over in 2017. DeKalb County is under a federal consent decree to repair its aging and overwhelmed wastewater system and has dedicated more than $300 million to the cause in recent years. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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Civil litigation

Who, exactly, Norton is helping the feds investigate is not clear.

In her charging document, “Individual 1″ is described only as a Fulton County resident who “was the owner and controller of certain corporate entities based in the Northern District of Georgia.” No other alleged co-conspirators are named.

A separate piece of civil litigation, meanwhile, accuses Norton and several more people of working together to hide funds from an insurance company. Those additional people include Norton’s husband and Shelitha Renee Robertson, a well-connected former law partner whose company also has water and sewer contracts with DeKalb County.

Sompo International Insurance filed the suit in U.S. District Court in April, alleging that the Nortons, Robertson and others “fraudulently transferred assets among and between themselves” to avoid paying the firm about $240,000. Sompo says it’s still owed that money in connection with bonds it issued in 2014, to help CamKen Consulting fund a sewer rehabilitation project for the city of Atlanta.

The insurance company’s lawsuit alleges that the individuals used at least five corporations — including CamKen Consulting, Linear Earth and Robertson’s company, The Renee Group — as “facades” for their own private dealings. They shifted money between the LLCs with “the intent to hinder, delay or defraud” the insurance company, according to the suit.

“The Corporate Defendants’ funds, to the extent they had any, including fraudulently-obtained federal Payroll Protection Program (“PPP”) funds, were used solely and/or substantially for the benefit of the Individual Defendants,” Sompo International attorney Jon Menechino Jr. wrote in a filing associated with the lawsuit.

Robertson, an ex-police officer, former assistant city attorney for Atlanta and one-time candidate for a Fulton County Superior Court judgeship, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Chandra Norton, who is also an attorney, earlier this month filed a formal response to the insurance lawsuit. She denied most of the accusations levied against her and the other defendants and asked a judge to dismiss the complaint.

On the court document, Norton included a “camken.com” email address in her contact information. She has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the AJC.

County contracts

CamKen Consulting was founded in 2001 and has been listed on various DeKalb County contracts since at least 2015. Its work involves water and sewer projects, which are in high demand with DeKalb vowing to spend more than $2 billion to address those crucial but long-neglected systems.

CamKen’s efforts on a $5.5 million contract that includes assessing manholes and small-diameter pipes throughout the county are vital for a sewer system whose primary source of spills is “inflow and infiltration,” a phenomenon where rainwater enters the system through various imperfections and pushes pipes past capacity, forcing wastewater out into the community.

The county said CamKen has been paid for that work on a regular basis since Chandra Norton’s indictment. It received a payment as recently as May 26.

Ed Williams, leader of the local advocacy group Concerned Citizens for Effective Government, said that generally speaking a purported change in ownership shouldn’t be enough for the county to justify doing business with a company carrying criminal baggage.

Another county contract that’s paid out more than $50 million since 2017 involves work repairing and installing water and sewer pipes in a “joint venture” between CamKen Consulting and The Renee Group.

Documents provided by an attorney for the Renee Group show that firm bought CamKen out of the joint venture shortly after the contract was approved. The documents also showed that CamKen received $1.2 million to stay on as a consultant to the Renee Group on the contract.

The contract has been renewed or otherwise modified at least seven times since its original approval. Despite the buyout, county documents related to the contract list the joint venture between the two companies as the contractor.

The county said Friday that Renee Group only notified them late last month that it ended the joint venture with CamKen years ago. There was no notification requirement, officials said, and no requirement that a joint venture be maintained to keep the contract.

The new change order to the contract in question would extend the term until June 2023 and add about $6.2 million worth of work.

The change order is assigned to the board’s infrastructure committee, which has been awaiting the results from the regular audit process, but could discuss the contract again as soon as Tuesday.

“I trust if there is an issue associated with the contract that is in audit, [the purchasing department] will make me aware,” said Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, the committee’s chair.

DeKalb County’s government says it didn’t report a sanitary sewer overflow to state and federal authorities. Pictured is the Snapfinger Creek Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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HOW WE GOT THE STORY

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained and reviewed dozens of court documents, business records and county contracts in order to paint a better picture of the federal case against Chandra Norton, her relationship with CamKen Consulting and other local contractors, and her role in important DeKalb County infrastructure projects.

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