Atlanta region sees spike in public corruption cases

A county commissioner swaps her vote for $30,000 in casino chips. A public works supervisor demands $18,000 from a construction contractor looking for county work. A detention officer pockets more than $26,000 to help distribute drugs at the jail.

These former metro Atlanta officials are now convicts. And their cases are part of a growing number of public corruption cases pursued by federal authorities in the metro area.

An analysis of federal crime statistics by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows the number of public corruption convictions here has spiked in recent years. The federal judicial district that includes metro Atlanta now ranks among the top districts in the country in corruption convictions, the newspaper found.

Law enforcement officials say an increased emphasis on nabbing corrupt officials — not necessarily an increase in corruption — accounts for the rise in convictions.

But federal prosecutors say the consequences of corruption — including wasted tax dollars and broken public trust — are real.

In one recent federal case, a Fayetteville man was charged with stealing more than $2.7 million from the U.S. government while he was an Army captain in Saudi Arabia. Other cases — including an ongoing federal corruption investigation in Gwinnett County — involved bribing public officials to approve contracts or real estate developments.

Jim Regan of Lawrenceville leads a group that wants to remake the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners to discourage corruption. He said taxpayers get stuck with the bill for public officials’ bad behavior.

“We’re the ones that pay too much for various properties,” Regan said. “We get to pay your legal defense. Then we get to pay to incarcerate you.”

The AJC analyzed a decade of public corruption convictions in 93 federal judicial districts across the country. Among the newspaper’s findings:

*The number of convictions in the Northern District of Georgia, which includes metro Atlanta, rose sharply from just 6 in 2006 to 32 in both 2010 and 2011.

*The district ranked 51st in the country in corruption convictions in 2006. But in 2010 and 2011 it ranked 6th out of 93 districts.

*For the 10-year period from 2002 to 2011, the Northern District of Georgia saw 181 public corruption convictions, 22nd among the 93 districts. It trailed such famed corruption capitals as New Jersey (429 convictions), Chicago (370) and South Florida (284).

The statistics don’t provide a definitive answer to the question of which regions are the most corrupt. They include only federal convictions, not local prosecutions. The statistics also might reflect variations in population and the different priorities of federal prosecutors in different districts.

But Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor who has analyzed federal corruption convictions, believes they are the best measure available of relative corruption levels in different parts of the country. He called metro Atlanta’s steady rise in the rankings “worrisome.”

Region rotten to the core?

With a string of high-profile cases in the news, Steve Ramey of the Founding Fathers Tea Party Patriots isn’t surprised the region has seen an increase in corruption convictions.

“I do think we are corrupt,” Ramey said. “I think that most of Georgia is corrupt.”

Federal officials attributed the trend to aggressive enforcement.

Mark Giuliano, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta field office, said public corruption investigations are the agency’s No. 1 priority. Several years ago the bureau established the Atlanta Public Corruption Task Force so the FBI would work with local and state law enforcement agencies and maximize investigative efforts.

Giuliano said the increase in convictions is at least partly the result of this realignment of resources. He also cited frequent calls for the public to report corruption and the dedication of the FBI’s staff, who “truly understand the importance of these investigations.”

“The damage caused by such activity can be immense due to large monetary losses to the taxpayer, the disruption of normal operations of government, as well as the loss of public trust,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said in recent years the FBI has made a concerted effort to develop sources of information from within law enforcement and business communities. “They’ve worked hard on that and we’re seeing it pay dividends now,” she said.

Yates declined to give specific examples. But the convictions this year of two DeKalb County public works officials occurred after a construction company owner came forward to the FBI and said one of the county officials was trying to shake him down for $18,000, according to court records. At the FBI’s direction, the private contractor, whose identity has not been disclosed, began working with agents in an undercover sting, taping conversations and handing over thousands of dollars in bribes to the two officials.

The FBI used a sting operation to ensnare former Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, her son and a man authorities called Lasseter’s “bag man.” They were taken in by an undercover FBI agent posing as a businessman who said he was ready to buy a property on Boggs Road with illicit drug money.

Their arrests — and subsequent convictions — had a distinct ripple effect. Lasseter; her son, John Fanning; and businessman Carl “Skip” Cain took on undercover roles and secretly recorded conversations with FBI targets. Their cooperation led to the recent guilty plea of local developer Mark Gary, who admitted handing over $30,000 in casino chips for Lasseter’s vote in 2009 for a waste transfer station.

Causes and consequences

Observers differ on the causes of corruption.

William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a citizen watchdog group, cited a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity — two Washington-based nonprofits devoted to government reform — that found Georgia ranked dead last among the states in the strength of its public corruption and open government laws.

“Weak laws allow for more corruption,” Perry said.

Simpson, the University of Illinois-Chicago professor, said corruption thrives in areas dominated by political machines. And he said demographics may play a larger role than ethics laws.

He said corruption flourishes in larger, more diverse areas where politicians may feel they are “stealing from somebody else.” In smaller, homogeneous areas — Simpson cited Vermont, which he said has few anti-corruption laws but almost no corruption — “you’re stealing from your neighbor,” he said.

Regardless of the cause, many believe corruption is bad for business.

“If somebody figures your state is corrupt, they may not want to bid on your project or move their business here,” Perry said.

Some residents say corruption also is destroying public trust in government.

That distrust played a big role in the defeat of a transportation sales tax measure at the polls in metro Atlanta on July 31. And distrust of Gwinnett County officials in the wake of a series of recent scandals helped sink a proposal to privatize and bring commercial passenger flights to Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville.

Regan said Gwinnett commissioners will have to take “some extraordinary steps” to restore public trust.

Before becoming U.S. attorney, Yates made a name for herself as a corruption-fighting federal prosecutor. In the early 1990s, she obtained convictions against a number of Atlanta City Council members in an airport corruption scandal and, in 2006, she successfully prosecuted former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

In an interview last week, Yates said the consequences of corrupt public officials have lasting effects.

“Public corruption cases really strike at the heart of what our government is all about,” Yates said. “Our system depends on trusting our public officials to act in the public’s best interest. When they use their positions instead to line their own pockets, it not only undermines the public’s confidence in that individual, but the whole system of government.”

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