Fulton authority members clash over planned audit, board powers

Michel 'Marty' Turpeau IV (right), chairman of DAFC, confers with State Senator Brandon Beach during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Michel 'Marty' Turpeau IV (right), chairman of DAFC, confers with State Senator Brandon Beach during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

A testy, three-hour meeting of the Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) Tuesday signaled momentum to rebuild public confidence following investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that revealed legally questionable per diems paid to some board members.

Two board members, Jo Anna Potts and Tom Tidwell, pushed the board to consider measures not on the day’s agenda, including a forensic audit. Tidwell’s call for a forensic audit triggered some pushback as the terminology relates a type of financial probe used to collect evidence in a civil or criminal case.

“My concern is not necessarily malfeasance but there is a lot of stuff we don’t know,” Tidwell said. “I’m concerned there might be other questionable financial transactions by prior leadership.”

The board meeting was the first since the interim executive director of the beleaguered agency faced questions prompted by the AJC’s reporting from Fulton commissioners at a public meeting July 14.

The AJC discovered board members were paid more than $1.1 million in per diems since 2011 — including more than $800,000 paid to former directors Bob Shaw, Samuel Jolley Jr. and Walter Metze Jr. Fulton commissioners have been unable to find evidence the body ever approved the $200 DAFC board fees, calling into question whether they were ever legal.

Shaw, Jolley and Metze are no longer on the board. Four new members joined in recent weeks.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board’s treasurer asked the agency’s outside auditor why the questionable per diem issues were not revealed in any of its standard, yearly audits.

Lee Tabb, a partner with Tabb & Tabb, said the authority’s payments were in line with the budget and did not seem unreasonable for a nine-person board.

DAFC set its first per diem policy in November following new board elections and later enhanced them amid reporting by the AJC. The authority suspended the payments last month until Fulton commissioners act.

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, an accountant by trade, who was sworn in Tuesday as the authority’s newest board member, said it’s crucial for the authority to define the scope of the audit, or else the review could sprawl and become costly. He said the board wants to find wrongdoing and fix it.

Board members will start their own informal review of expenses. Interim board director and board chair Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV established an audit committee prior to the meeting to make recommendations about the scope of the audit.

Erica Long, an Atlanta Public Schools executive who joined the board last month, said it is unclear if there might have been criminal acts.

“I would hate for terminology to trip us up from getting to a goal where we’d all like to be at,” she said. But the review needs to be thorough, Long said.

Tidwell also took issue with the way DAFC is governed.

Authority bylaws establish a five-member executive committee that holds significant power and can conduct some business on its own.

That committee can have a quorum of as few as three members, with as few as a two-member voting majority. The executive committee sets policies for the full board and Tidwell said in recent years he was in the dark when the committee hired lobbyists and a public relations firm on the authority’s behalf.

“I don’t know what’s going on on this board and I’ve been on this board for two years,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell pushed for a vote to change the authority’s bylaws. But Tidwell withdrew the effort after winning a concession from executive committee members that they would not take unilateral action on any matters without full board approval, except for in emergency situations.

“I think there are some changes that need to be made to the bylaws,” Turpeau said, while expressing concern about rushing implementation without first understanding the potential effects on operations.

The board tabled discussion on at least six other proposals made by Tidwell, which include new financial controls, guidelines for how the authority should vet proposed tax breaks and metrics and procedures for the authority to review projects to determine if recipients of incentives fulfilled their promises.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who is DAFC’s vice chairman, said he agrees with most of Tidwell’s proposals, but said the matters weren’t published on the board’s agenda for the public to see, and should be vetted in a special-called meeting.

“These are important items and for us to take votes with just 24 hours of notice is unfair,” he said.

The board agreed to hold set a special meeting in the weeks ahead.

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.