Second DeKalb sewer contractor accused of pandemic relief fraud

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Shelitha Robertson’s firm has lucrative water and sewer contracts with county

A business owner responsible for millions of dollars in important DeKalb County water and sewer projects has been charged with defrauding the federal paycheck protection program, using ill-gotten funds to buy cars and jewelry.

The allegations against Shelitha Robertson, CEO of The Renee Group, come as a former business partner and purported co-conspirator awaits sentencing on similar charges — and just months after DeKalb renewed her firm’s share of a lucrative county contract.

“Robertson allegedly stole millions of dollars in taxpayer money intended to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan said in a Tuesday news release announcing the indictment. “CARES Act loans were designed to help sustain small businesses during the pandemic, not to serve as a source of personal enrichment.”

In a statement, DeKalb officials said the county had not previously been aware of the allegations, which do not appear to directly involve any government contract. The county said it “will review all contracts and our relationship with Ms. Robertson and the Renee Group and take any appropriate action.”

ExploreDeKalb contracts with company founded by woman guilty of federal fraud
ExploreDeKalb cutting ties with company founded by admitted federal fraudster

According to the press release from federal authorites, the 60-year-old Robertson and “other co-conspirators” allegedly submitted fraudulent PPP loan applications “on behalf of various companies they owned and controlled” in early 2020. Robertson’s indictment says she used falsely inflated staffing numbers at four companies in order to maximize her returns.

PPP loans are mandated by law to be spent on payroll and other specified business expenses

Documents say three Robertson-owned companies — Atlanta Custom Motors, MO Griggs and Tritan — actually had zero employees, but loan filings claimed they had a total of 328. Robertson allegedly claimed The Renee Group had 93 employees “when, in fact, there were only between eight and thirteen.”

Robertson, who is also a former assistant city attorney and police officer in Atlanta, is accused of receiving more than $7 million of funds in all. She spent the proceeds on “a Rolls-Royce, a motorcycle, and jewelry, and to transfer funds to family members and co-conspirators,” according to authorities.

The jewelry allegedly included a 10-carat diamond ring valued at $128,000.

Robertson was charged with one count apiece of money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, as well as three counts of wire fraud. Neither she nor her attorney immediately responded to requests for comment.

Court records show a warrant had been issued for Robertson’s arrest but it was unclear Wednesday if it had been executed.

Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

The allegations, though, suggest for the first time that Robertson was involved in the same scheme that took down former business partner Chandra Norton.

Norton, another one-time DeKalb County contractor, was charged in 2020 with receiving millions in fraudulent PPP proceeds. She spent money on a Range Rover and other personal items, prosecutors allege.

Norton pleaded guilty to her charges more than two years ago but has not yet been sentenced — because, according to court filings, she’s acted as a cooperating witness for the government. Her sentencing, now set for February, has been delayed multiple times because of that cooperation.

It was not immediately confirmed that the charges against Robertson were a direct product of Norton’s assistance. But the new indictment, which specifically names Norton as an alleged co-conspirator, suggest Robertson may indeed be the unnamed “Individual 1″ referenced in Norton’s charging documents.

The duo, which also ran a law firm together, previously earned a DeKalb County sewer contract while working as a joint venture. While documents later provided to the county showed Robertson’s firm bought Norton’s out of the venture shortly after the contract was awarded, Norton and her firm, CamKen Consulting, later secured another multimillion-dollar contract with the county.

DeKalb County officials said earlier this year they had become aware of Norton’s indictment in March 2021 but did not immediately cancel the contract because they were provided documents showing Norton had sold her ownership in the company.

The AJC later obtained documents showing she’d merely transferred ownership to her husband. The county commission in July terminated the remainder of the CamKen contract.

County records, meanwhile, suggest Robertson’s Renee Group was one of four firms selected in October to work on a $99.6 million contract for on-call water and sewer repairs. And right around the same time news of Robertson’s indictment broke Tuesday, the county commission’s infrastructure committee approved an item that would allow The Renee Group and other contractors to draw additional county funds to cover the costs of inflation and supply chain issues.

That item must still be considered by the full commission.

Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, chair of the infrastructure committee, said in an email Wednesday that the indictment would “be addressed.”

The county is under a new federal consent decree to fix its long-standing sewer issues, and has committed to spending more than $2 billion to address its aging water and wastewater infrastructure.