AJC finds more questionable per diem payments to Fulton authority members

Three members pledge reimbursements after contacted by AJC.
The Development Authority of Fulton County is located in the Fulton County Government Center.

Credit: J. Scott Trubey

Credit: J. Scott Trubey

The Development Authority of Fulton County is located in the Fulton County Government Center.

In June 2019, Samuel Jolley Jr. flew from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Atlanta to make a Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) board meeting. He had an incentive for the trip.

For his trouble, the long-time DAFC board member was paid $200 in “per diem” for each of seven items on the authority’s June 7 meeting agenda, DAFC records show. He received an additional $200 for attending, documents show, and the authority picked up the tab for his flight and cab fare from the airport.

From just one meeting, Jolley, then the board’s vice chairman, received $1,600 in board fees, not including more than $400 in travel expenses from the day before, according to DAFC records.

Collecting multiple per diem payments the same day for each board action, or for multiple meetings the same day, was commonplace for some at the agency, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found.

Since 2011, DAFC board members have collected $1.1 million in per diems, with more than $800,000 of that going to three former board members — Bob Shaw, Jolley and Walter Metze Jr. — who were the most prolific at collecting multiple payments for the same meeting or for the same day, the AJC’s review of records found.

The investigation found that at least three of the board’s current nine members also engaged in the practice of collecting multiple per diems, though to a lesser degree, totaling about $3,000 in questionable payments in 2019.

After the AJC brought the duplicate payments to their attention, the three current board members said they have or will reimburse the agency for the amounts.

The AJC’s findings undercut explanations from the authority that per diem abuses were connected solely to prior DAFC leadership.

Those engaging in the questionable per diem practice, according to records, include Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, the agency’s chairman and interim executive director; Shaw, the authority’s former chairman who served on the board for decades; Metze, the authority’s former treasurer; Jolley, a former president of Morris Brown College and longtime DAFC secretary; Steve Broadbent, a former U.S. Treasury official and former DAFC vice chair who remains on the board; and Sam Bacote, the authority’s current treasurer.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said the AJC findings demonstrate a “loosey-goosey” culture at the authority. He said he was incredulous that experienced business leaders wouldn’t know that “per diem” means once “per day.”

“Everybody and their brother would understand what a per diem is,” Pitts said.

Samuel Jolley Jr., a former member of the Development Authority of Fulton County board was paid a $200 per diem at times by the number of items on the authority's agenda. DAFC has previously said some board officers were paid that way as a tracking mechanism for work that went into making matters ready for the board's review.

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Turpeau and other board leaders have said they were unaware of per diem abuses until last fall when the board was made aware of generous per diems to Shaw, a former chairman. The authority elected new board leadership and in November barred members from collecting more than one per diem per day.

The authority adopted further reforms June 22, following reporting from the AJC and Channel 2 Action News on the abuses and as the newspaper prepared a report that Shaw earned more than $1 million in salary and per diems since 2011.

“The past actions that are under scrutiny (in the media) were made without the knowledge of the new officers, including myself, and our current board,” said Turpeau, announcing the newest policies.

An AJC review of per diem expenditures in 2019, the year before DAFC established a per diem policy, found that Turpeau billed the authority for attending two meetings held the same day five times. In other words, Turpeau collected 10 days’ worth of per diems for five days’ worth of service.

“When I began serving on a committee for DAFC, I was told it was a separate per diem for the separate function and work being conducted for the committee,” Turpeau told the AJC. He said his 2017 appointment to the board was his first government posting and the agency had no per diem policy.

Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, the Development Authority of Fulton County's chairman and interim executive director, is seen here in a white shirt at a DAFC meeting. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

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Turpeau said Friday he wrote a check to the authority for extra per diems, which would equal $1,000, “so that I am in compliance with our current policy that I helped put in place in late 2020.”

“I have asked staff to conduct a further review to the time I began serving on the board in 2017 and to do so for the other current board members as well,” he said.

Asked if DAFC had sought a third-party review of its finances in the wake of the scandal, Turpeau said the authority is undergoing its standard annual audit. Those previous audits did not find the per diem abuses uncovered by the AJC and Channel 2.

Jessica Cino, a law partner at Krevlin Horst and an expert in corporate crisis management, said seeking an independent forensic review in the wake of a financial scandal is Board of Directors 101.

“That’s ridiculous. Legitimately ridiculous,” Cino said of DAFC’s inaction.

Turpeau has been paid more than $45,000 in stipends since he joined the board in 2017. In May, Turpeau was named interim executive director, formalizing a role he had essentially performed since the beginning of 2021. The board paid him a $15,000-per-month salary retroactive to the beginning of the year, and he has said he forfeited board fees he collected so far this year.

Turpeau is expected to appear before the Fulton County Board of Commissioners on July 14 to answer questions about DAFC’s per diem spending and previously undisclosed salary payments to Shaw of roughly $78,000 a year for six years.

He should expect a chilly reception.

Commissioner Lee Morris has criticized Turpeau and other board members for not reporting abuses to the county commission or other officials when they were discovered. Morris said he wants to know if any current DAFC board members received improper payments.

“If he did,” Morris said of Turpeau, “then his hands are about as unclean as anyone’s hands could be.”

Per diem for ‘volunteer’ event

Under Georgia law, development authorities in Fulton and three other counties can pay board members stipends for their service, but DAFC is the only one that does. A lawyer for DAFC recently said the authority might have paid board fees since in the 1980s or 1990s.

But Fulton commissioners have been unable to find evidence the county ever authorized DAFC to pay stipends to its board members, calling into question their legality. The authority later suspended the payments pending a review.

For this story, the AJC reviewed per diem requisition forms from 2019 detailing the service board members provided to claim stipends. On the forms, directors certified they attended authority meetings or conducted official business and are eligible to claim a $200 per diem.

The documents state: “I, the undersigned member of the Development Authority of Fulton County, do hereby certify that I was engaged in official Authority business, regular and or special called meetings, on the dates indicated below, and I am entitled to the per diem allowance authorized by law for such service.”

Board members provide the date and describe the nature of their service and sign the document, which is also typically signed by an authority staff member.

Jolley collected more than $160,000 in board fees since 2011, while Metze was paid more than $140,000 in that time, according to an AJC analysis of DAFC records.

The AJC found Jolley claimed per diems for multiple events held on the same day at least eight times in 2019.

On March 19 of that year, Jolley claimed $200 each for attending a ribbon cutting at a chiropractic clinic and the state of city address in Union City. On June 25, Jolley collected $600 total for attending a regular board meeting, an executive committee meeting and for signing an authority bank document.

Per diem ledgers kept by the authority show Jolley also was paid by the number of items on the board’s meeting agendas on at least a dozen occasions in 2019, including the June 7 special called meeting, in which Jolley returned to Atlanta from Florida.

It’s unclear from the meeting agenda or minutes why his attendance in person was necessary for the June 7, 2019, meeting. A receipt for his flight shows Jolley purchased the round-trip ticket from West Palm Beach to Atlanta on May 22, two weeks before the meeting.

Metze sought per diems in 2019 for events held the same day on at least four times and on at least five occasions for signing a document. In February 2019, he sought per diems twice on the same day to reimburse his time for “bills sent by courier” and “bill sent by Marva,” referencing a DAFC staffer.

And both Jolley and Metze sought per diem for attending a South Fulton Chamber golf tournament in September 2019. Jolley listed his participation as “volunteer.”

Jolley and Metze did not respond to AJC letters left at their homes seeking interviews.

Members pledge refunds

Broadbent and Bacote sought multiple per diems for attending more than one meeting in a day in 2019.

DAFC records show Bacote, who recently filed paperwork to run for the open District 5 seat on the Atlanta City Council, filed a request for per diem for full board meetings that occurred on Feb. 26, April 23, June 25, Nov. 19 and Dec. 5.

On each of those days, Bacote also sought per diem for attending a meeting of a DAFC committee responsible for assisting minority and female-owned businesses. Bacote also was paid for signing a DAFC document in October of that year, an authority per diem ledger shows, though Bacote disputes that payment because he was not an officer of the board at that time.

Bacote’s term on the DAFC board expired in May, but he remains a member until another person is nominated and approved by Fulton commissioners.

Bacote said he plans to reimburse DAFC for multiple per diems collected the same day to comply with the agency’s current policy, and said he did not seek to take advantage of per diems when there was no policy. Bacote joined DAFC’s board and has collected more than $54,000 in per diems since 2011.

“I collected per diems on average of less than $6,500 per year, so much lower than some and well within a norm considering the preparation and number of meetings expected to attend,” he said in an email to the AJC. “Those totals are not the actions of someone trying to take advantage of a system without a policy.”

Broadbent is a former Navy commander who also served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury under President George H. W. Bush.

At the June 22 DAFC board meeting, Broadbent revealed he discovered Shaw earned per diems for signing documents last fall when he filled in while the former chairman was hospitalized. Broadbent drafted DAFC’s first policy to limit per diems.

But records reviewed by the AJC show in April, July, November and December of 2019, Broadbent signed requisitions seeking per diems for attending board meetings and executive committee meetings held the same day.

Broadbent has collected more than $34,000 in per diems since 2013.

“While the per diem payments for each individual meeting was the established practice at the time, I want to ensure compliance with the new policy,” Broadbent said in an email. He said he mailed a check Thursday to the authority for $800 to reimburse the four extra payments and asked DAFC staff if other instances exist.

“If I am notified by staff of additional occurrences, I will pay back those amounts as well,” Broadbent said.

Our reporting

The AJC’s previous reporting revealed a culture of loose financial oversight at the Development Authority of Fulton County. Board members gave themselves per diems that elected county commissioners now believe may not have been legal.

Using public tax filings and documents received through the state’s Open Records Act, the AJC has shown that one member, Bob Shaw, earned hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the authority had previously disclosed for a staff position that few members knew about. The AJC’s reporting led Shaw to step down, pledges of transparency by the authority and scrutiny from some state and local lawmakers.