Grand jury report: Clayton government irresponsible, abuses power

Some Clayton County elected officials and the people they hire to run county agencies are “irresponsible,” abuse their powers and use their positions to help themselves, their relatives and their friends, according to a report from a special grand jury that is to be released Tuesday.

Almost 2 1/2 years after Clayton Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons ordered two dozen citizens “to review cases of corruption in city and county government,” their work has ended and their report is to be filed in early afternoon. Portions of the report were sent to those whose agencies were criticized. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained only some of those sections of the report so the extent of the corruption the grand jurors suspect is not known. These sections also do not name individual public officials; only the agencies are identified.

This special grand jury did not have the authority to bring indictments, but still their work has led to a guilty plea, an elected official resigning and indictments from a regular grand jury. District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said there are ongoing criminal investigations and there could be more cases brought.

“The evidence led this body to conclude that people elected or hired for the public trust were irresponsible in using the power of their office to hire friends or family, and/or to use money or resources for personal interests, all to the detriment of citizens,” the special purpose grand jurors wrote.

The jurors reached their conclusions after hearing from 120 witnesses who were “concerned citizens,” vendors and suppliers, commissioners and county employees. The jurors also reviewed documents in their investigation of Sheriff’s Office employees in the years 2005 through 2008, the Olde Towne Morrow project, the city of Lovejoy’s elections, Sheriff Victor Hill, the Clayton County Water Authority, the Board of Commissioners and the Finance Department.

The section of the report concerning the County Commission described a secretive body that traveled at taxpayer expense when it was not justified. The report, which was obtained exclusively by the AJC, complained that public records were destroyed, there were no checks and balances in approving expense reimbursements, the commission did not advertised its upcoming meetings and agendas and commissioners made appointments despite obvious conflicts or even criminal histories.

“That sounds unconscionable,” Pat Pullar a political consultant and chairwoman of the Clayton County Board of Election, said.

“It is our strong belief these activities undermine the morals, values and welfare of the citizens of Clayton County,” the grand jurors wrote. “As each new piece of evidence was revealed — as each new witness testified — this body was continually shocked, saddened, appalled and dismayed at the state of affairs in Clayton County. More difficult was being cognizant of what was going on, watching situations continue, but being sworn to secrecy until due process of law was meted out.”

The special purpose grand jury was created in April 2011 after the DA’s Office received several complaints about county government. It was to have ended its work last fall but asked the judge to give them another year.

Rosa Barbee, one of the people who complained, was unhappy there have not been more people charged, especially members of the County Commission.

“I’m disappointed that the DA hasn’t done anything in terms of indictments of these people,” said Barbee, president of the watchdog organization Clayton County Active Support Group. “This case should have been done with…. They’re just trying to make this go away. It’s dirty politics.”

Former county manager Wade Starr, Commissioner Sonna Singleton, former commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, all of whom were called by the special grand jury, declined to comment. Former Commissioner Wole Ralph could not be reached and Commissioner Gail Hambrick declined to comment until she has read the report.

So far the grand jury’s work had led to:

• Former Clayton Water Authority manager Linton Herbert Etheridge pleading guilty to lying to a grand jury by hiding the fact that his son worked for a company awarded a contract to landscape water authority property. He was sentenced to five years probation.

• Former Lovejoy Mayor Joe Murphy resigning and promising to never again run for public office as he and five others, including three relatives, were being investigated for allegedly casting illegal votes in the 2007 city elections.

• An eight-count indictment against John Lampl, former Morrow City Council member and city manager, involving the failed Olde Towne Morrow development. He was indicted in June 2011 but his case has been on hold while the Georgia Court of Appeals considers a pre-trial issue.

• The indictments of Sheriff Victor Hill and two former Sheriff’s Office employees. Hill was acquitted in August of charges he used his first term in office for personal gain, and 11 days later Lawson dropped similar charges against Beatrice Powell and Jonathan Newton; both had been accused of stealing time from the county.

• Subpoenas for spending records of Starr, Ralph, Singleton and Commissioner Gail Hambrick.

The grand jurors wrote that they “listened to witness after witness, from one case to the other, the resonating themes became clear, when one person is in control with no presence of checks and balances then the following occurs: mismanagement of taxpayer money; abuse of power; intimidation; threat of job loss (both direct or indirect) to employees; and/or, failure to disregard or report improper orders.”

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