DeKalb County hasn’t quite cut ties with The Renee Group, an important water and sewer contractor whose founder has been accused of defrauding the federal paycheck protection program.
But the relationship is certainly fraying.
DeKalb officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that work associated with The Renee Group’s three existing county contracts was “either in its final stages, complete or new work has been temporarily suspended.” That includes a new $58 million agreement for on-call water and sewer repairs.
“This contract was fully executed on Dec. 6, 2022, but no notice to proceed (NTP) letter has been issued and RGI has not been authorized to perform work under this contract,” a county spokesman said.
Dec. 6, incidentally, is the same day that federal charges against Renee Group founder and CEO Shelitha Robertson were announced. The allegations — which are not related to her work with the county — involve a scheme in which Robertson is accused of submitting fraudulent loan applications to the federal paycheck protection program, an initiative intended to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.
Court documents allege that Robertson, a 60-year-old former Atlanta police officer and assistant city attorney, falsely inflated staffing numbers at four companies she owned in order to pocket more than $7 million.
She’s accused of spending part of the proceeds on a Rolls-Royce and a 10-carat diamond ring, reportedly valued $128,000.
Since the charges were announced, some county commissioners and local residents have called for the county and its historically scandal-plagued Department of Watershed Management to stop doing business with Robertson’s company.
Robertson, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing and blamed the situation on Chandra Norton: her co-defendant, former business partner and another one-time DeKalb County sewer contractor.
In a recent court hearing, Robertson lawyer Craig Gillen referred to Norton, who also worked as an attorney before being disbarred last month, as a “one-man crime wave.”
Norton pleaded guilty to the single count of wire fraud conspiracy in Nov. 2020 but has not yet been sentenced because she was acting as a government informant — to help build the case against Robertson.
The county cut ties with Norton’s firm, CamKen Consulting, last year, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on her indictment. Officials are presumably treading more lightly with The Renee Group because, unlike Norton, Robertson appears set to take her case to trial.
An attorney representing her firm declined to comment for this story.
The Renee Group has also played a much larger role in addressing DeKalb’s most important infrastructure, including sewer fixes mandated by the county’s federal consent decree, which requires the county to spend more than a billion dollars to stop spills and comply with the federal Clean Water Act.
Financial documents obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act show that, between 2016 and December of last year, DeKalb had paid The Renee Group about $78.1 million for work done on behalf of the county.
That includes about $8.2 million toward what would be a $30.5 million contract directly related to consent decree work. The Renee Group has been authorized to finish in-progress pipe installations but is “under orders to cease operations on new tasks until further notice,” the county said.
Between that and the other contract awarded late last year, the county has now put a pause on more than $80 million worth of work from The Renee Group.
A DeKalb spokesperson, though, said in an emailed statement that the stop-work order “has no immediate impact on the consent decree work.”
“DeKalb County is currently ahead of schedule on repairs required under the recently modified consent decree,” the statement said. “[Fifty-six] of the original 103 priority fix list sites have been addressed 12 months early. Additionally, the County has multiple contracts available to complete the required pipe rehabilitation in 2023.”
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com