Senator calls on Gov. Kemp to remove Stonecrest mayor from office

Mayor Jason Lary accused of misusing $6.2M in CARES Act funds
Sen. Emanuel Jones (left) and Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary (right).

Sen. Emanuel Jones (left) and Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary (right).

Following a vote to make public a lengthy investigative report into Stonecrest’s use of $6 million in COVID-19 relief funds, a state lawmaker is calling for Gov. Brian Kemp to remove Stonecrest’s mayor from office.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) said Monday he plans to provide the full investigative report to Kemp’s office in addition to federal authorities. He previously called for the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate how the federal funds were spent, accusing Mayor Jason Lary of misusing the funds for their own personal gain.

“There’s a whole bunch of money missing and someone needs to be held accountable,” Jones said. Lary has previously denied Jones’ accusations, claiming the state senator has a vendetta against him.

When asked about Jones’ threat to go to the governor, Lary texted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “In this country, innocent until proven guilty.”

Four members of the Stonecrest City Council voted Monday to waive attorney-client privilege on the report, which will allow the public to read the document. City Attorney Winston Denmark conducted the investigation after council members said their requests for more information on the funding program were being ignored by the mayor’s office. In an email to city leaders and media outlets, Denmark said his report “is well over 100 pages.”

However, only Mayor Jason Lary and the City Council have seen the report so far. The council chose not to discuss its contents or show the report at Monday’s short special called meeting. City leaders were provided the report about 3 p.m. Monday.

“I haven’t read the entire document,” Mayor Pro Tem George Turner, who presided over the meeting, said. “Like many of you, I just got it late today. I skimmed it and there’s some things there that are of concern — great concern.”

The AJC filed an open records request for the full investigative report. Stonecrest Administrative Assistant Leah Rodriguez told the AJC that the report couldn’t be provided until later in the week because the city’s office is closed due to a COVID-19 case.

‘Squarely on my shoulders’

That coronavirus case didn’t stop Lary from appearing before a podium in City Hall Monday afternoon to hold a virtual roundtable with pastors and nonprofits who received Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

Lary defended the city’s work to distribute the CARES Act money and touted the charitable actions of the recipients.

During the roundtable, Lary acknowledged the investigative report would be released later in the day and said he’d take any responsibility if the report isn’t gleaming.

“If something has gone awry or folks aren’t pleased about what has happened, you can blame it on me. Not anybody else. Not the team, not the folks that worked the opportunity, not the people who distributed the money,” Lary said. “You put it squarely on my shoulders as mayor, and I’ll take whatever it is that comes our way. This is the job, that is the position and that is the leadership sense that I have.”

“I thought they did a fantastic job,” he said of Stonecrest Cares and Municipal Resource Partners, who oversaw the city’s CARES Act program. “That team, that crew did an outstanding job of distributing the money, taking the applications, vetting the folks with regards to how those decisions were made and they had to do this in 45 days.”

The city hired Municipal Resource Partners, a nonprofit founded in May 2020, to disperse $6.2 million in CARES Act funds to small businesses. It was founded by Tom Kurrie, Stonecrest’s first city attorney.

Municipal Resource Partners was paid $510,000 to disperse $4.3 million of CARES Act funds to 138 small businesses. It also provided $855,000 to Stonecrest Cares, a philanthropic program within the city that distributed the funds to nonprofits and churches. Stonecrest Cares, co-founded by Lillian Lowe and Iris Settle, is not a registered nonprofit, and Lary has previously said he hopes it’ll become a permanent arm of the city government.

Despite his praise of the program, Lary has not shared a list of every entity that received CARES money with the City Council or the AJC. The AJC filed multiple open records requests over the past three weeks, which are all still pending.

Lary has repeatedly said he had no part in choosing who received funds and that he didn’t have a decision-making role regarding the CARES Act program.

About 450 entities applied for funds. In a February meeting, Clarence Boone, who was the city’s economic development director, told the City Council that more than 300 did not meet all of the qualifications but 138 were given awards. Boone was recently replaced by Jonathan Bartlett as part of several staffing changes that were made in the wake of the city’s charter being rewritten by state lawmakers.

Boone’s presentation also included multiple record-keeping discrepancies. A spreadsheet shown during Boone’s presentation listed more expenditures than funds received, roughly a $65,000 error. His presentation included a $150,000 discrepancy in the amount of grant funds awarded through the program.

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