Fulton takes no action on troubled development agency, as tempers flare

July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Commissioner Lee Morris (left) questions Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV (foreground), chairman of DAFC, as Commission Chairman Robb Pitts (right) looks during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Commissioner Lee Morris (left) questions Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV (foreground), chairman of DAFC, as Commission Chairman Robb Pitts (right) looks during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Fulton County’s first crack at reforming its troubled development agency failed to produce any reforms at a raucous commission meeting Wednesday, as commissioners sparred over the motives and timing behind the measures.

The proposed changes to the Development Authority of Fulton County included setting a stipend rate and requiring financial disclosure for authority members. Both items were tabled.

Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, the authority’s interim executive director, making his first public appearance before the commissioners since the per diem scandal broke, faced a grilling from Commissioner Lee Morris over the authority’s finances.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington accused Morris and others of racism for wanting to enact new restrictions now after commissioners failed to regulate the authority for years when it was under white leadership.

The heated hearing came six weeks after the first stories by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News raised questions about $200 per diems paid to the authority’s nine-member board.

The AJC ultimately discovered board members were paid more than $1.1 million in per diems since 2011 — including more than $800,000 paid to three former top board officers — Bob Shaw, Samuel Jolley Jr. and Walter Metze Jr. For years, Shaw had a separate $78,000-per-year job at DAFC that few knew about while he was earning fees for his service as board chairman.

ExploreOur reporting about the Development Authority of Fulton County

Fulton commissioners have said they have been unable to find evidence the commission ever approved the per diem rate, calling into question the legality of the payments. And the payments have been suspended since last month.

Morris, a Republican who represents Buckhead and Sandy Springs, introduced legislation to enact new financial disclosure requirements on authority board members and to cap per diems at $105 per day, and only for official meetings.

Morris said that while he recognized the new board had stepped in to enact controls where none existed, “the truth is the public has completely lost trust and confidence in DAFC and its leadership.”

July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Commissioner Lee Morris questions Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV (not pictured) during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Commissioner Lee Morris questions Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV (not pictured) during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Turpeau told commissioners the authority has turned over a new leaf. Past practices were “loosey-goosey,” Turpeau said, echoing criticisms made by Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.

The per diem abuses did not become public until reported on by the AJC and Channel 2. Once leaders learned of per diem abuses last fall by former leadership, Turpeau said, the board installed new policies prior to media scrutiny and later strengthened them.

DAFC also has committed to disclosing per diem payments online, including documentation justifying the fees and filing financial disclosures.

“We got the goose, we tamed the goose and we’re trying now not to have the goose cooked,” Turpeau said.

Turpeau said the authority board will consider a proposed forensic audit of past contracts and payments.

July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV, chairman of DAFC, standing with Sam Bacote (left), treasurer of DAFC and Kyle Lamont (second from left), member of DAFC, answers questions from the elected Fulton commissioners at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV, chairman of DAFC, standing with Sam Bacote (left), treasurer of DAFC and Kyle Lamont (second from left), member of DAFC, answers questions from the elected Fulton commissioners at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel "Marty" Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Behind the scenes, Turpeau has maneuvered to convince commissioners to soften Morris’ proposed per diem limits. On Tuesday, the AJC obtained an email showing Turpeau made hand-written edits to Morris’ legislation to allow payments for other board activities, beyond regularly scheduled meetings.

Turpeau showed commissioners documents that indicated the commission was aware for years DAFC paid board fees, referred to as stipends. Turpeau said his board is hard working and the agency only has three staffers, putting heavy demands on members’ time.

Morris shot back that board members of Invest Atlanta, the city’s development agency, where Morris serves, are unpaid. Invest Atlanta members also work very hard, he said.

“It appears this board is terribly focused on the money you can put in your pockets for per diems and salaries for jobs,” he said.

Moments later, Arrington took aim at Morris. Arrington said efforts to rein in DAFC were racist, spurring gasps from the crowd.

“You sat by and didn’t say nothing when the white people (were in charge),” Arrington said. “That is disparate impact, and that is racism.”

July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Commissioner Marvin S. Arrington, Jr. reacts during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 14, 2021 Atlanta - Commissioner Marvin S. Arrington, Jr. reacts during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, chairman of the embattled Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC), announced Monday he will end his dual role as interim executive director, effective Aug. 31. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

He said reducing the per diem amount now, when the authority has a Black chairman, was also racist and called for uniformity among board payments for all of the dozens of board affiliated with Fulton County.

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman later said she didn’t understand why, now with leaders of color in place, the current DAFC members were being chastised for sins of others.

“For some reason, you all have to have that Scarlett Letter,” said Abdur-Rahman.

Turpeau “should be given the opportunity to prove himself,” Abdur-Rahman said in an interview before the meeting, adding that Turpeau is being “crucified for what Robert Shaw did.”

But she said anyone who took improper per diems should pay them back.

Preview of battles to come

Wednesday’s board of commissioners meeting gave an early glimpse of likely fights to come before the Georgia General Assembly next year. Loose state laws governing development authorities allowed financial abuses to fester in secret, and critics say more oversight and tighter controls are needed.

Though commissioners appoint members, they can not remove their appointees. Real reform, critics say, will require a state overhaul.

DAFC and Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm, both earn fees from developers from granting incentive deals, and are often pitted by developers against one another. That increases the incentive to do deals, rather than protect taxpayers, critics say.

“We have this unfortunate situation of two development authorities competing with each other,” Bill Bozarth, a member of Invest Atlanta, told commissioners.

Cutting tax breaks in areas that don’t need them rob poor and underserved communities of tax money for needed services, former Invest Atlanta board member Julian Bene said.

“Your constituents are fed up with senseless tax breaks for projects that will happen anyway because they’re in hot markets like Midtown,” Bene said.

Turpeau said new board leadership is taking a new approach.

“We have a new focus. More investment and development south of I-20,” he said. “These are the areas that have been left behind.”

That new focus, however, has yet to materialize in many new projects benefiting South Fulton. Authority officials have said they’ve been sidetracked by the per diem scandal.

Pressure on appointments

Bene said some 500 Fulton residents have signed a petition calling on Chairman Pitts to replace DAFC Treasurer Sam Bacote with a reform-minded board member. Bacote, who has served on the board since 2009, is currently on the board in an expired term.

“The real power you have is board appointments,” Bene said.

Fulton commissioners recently forced DAFC to have two board members appointed by Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County Schools. Two other board seats are in transition, with Bacote and Steve Broadbent serving on expired terms.

“If you don’t do this,” Bene said of replacing Bacote, “it will be business as usual at DAFC.”

Pitts has said he has not decided whether to reappoint Bacote or appoint someone else. But he has said in his career as an elected official, he likes to bring in new blood from time to time.

Commissioner Liz Hausmann this week nominated Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker to succeed Broadbent. Bodker was approved Wednesday.

Fulton resident Jack White said several of the current board members are rubberstamps on needless incentives. White also took issue with Turpeau serving as interim executive director.

Turpeau became interim executive director in mid-May, earning a $15,000-per-month salary, while serving as chairman. Turpeau’s pay was backdated to January 1, when he effectively took on the role after the retirement of former authority executive director, Al Nash.

Turpeau said he has forfeited his board fees during this time. This week, Turpeau said he would remain chairman but step down from his executive role at the end of August.

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.