Gwinnett commissioner and developer were closely tied

The Gwinnett public corruption scandal has focused on two major players: Kevin Kenerly, the real estate investor and former county commissioner, and David Jenkins, the high-powered developer. Kenerly is now under indictment on bribery and other charges, and Jenkins has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.

In the years before the grand jury investigation that led to Kenerly’s arrest, the two men were frequent business partners, working on real estate projects that often came up before the county commission for decisive votes.

An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found 10 real estate deals in which both men had a financial stake while Kenerly sat on the commission. The law requires commissioners to disclose their financial interest in certain matters that come before them, and Kenerly did so — and abstained from voting — in most cases, records show. But he voted yes on at least 10 rezoning cases that Jenkins brought before the commission.

The fact that the two men were so closely connected underscores how the lines between business and government have often blurred in Gwinnett. In the earliest days of the county’s boom, real estate developers literally ran the place; later, the county commission often seemed to be little more than a cheering section for the land barons who built the county.

One commissioner has pleaded guilty to bribery; Kenerly is awaiting trial; and a commission chairman was forced to leave office under threat of indictment. The scandal has raised doubts among Gwinnett voters and taxpayers as to who has been in charge in Lawrenceville — their elected officials or businessmen willing to bribe those officials.

“They’re in it for the wrong reasons, evidently — or they’re into it for their own agenda,” said Gwinnett resident Kristine Davis, who opposed a rezoning in 2004 that involved both Kenerly and Jenkins in her neighborhood along Grayson Highway. “They’re there to represent us and listen to us and you don’t feel like it’s happening that way…. Basically, you feel like you don’t have any say.”

Kenerly has misrepresented the degree to which he and Jenkins worked together. In 2006 he told a Fox 5 reporter that he had never been in business with Jenkins; in 2009, he told the AJC that he and Jenkins had been partners on three real estate projects.

Kenerly the businessman became Kenerly the commissioner in 1995, and the interests of one often intersected with the interests of the other. And from time to time, people took notice.

Gwinnett resident Rick Anderson wrote to then-Commission Chairman Wayne Hill in 2003, after learning that Kenerly had a financial interest in the same Grayson Highway rezoning that Kristine Davis opposed.

“I personally do not find it acceptable that any commissioner stands to make profits on any land transactions voted on by the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners,” Anderson wrote.

The AJC tried to contact Kenerly for an interview. In response, his attorney said he had advised Kenerly not to grant interviews while his criminal case was unresolved.

Jenkins answered a call from the AJC last week but hung up when the reporter identified himself.

10 of 24 projects

Kenerly, 49, and Jenkins, 59, are longtime county residents who put their money on the Gwinnett housing boom and prospered — Jenkins as one of the biggest developers in the county and Kenerly as an investor and real estate broker. Both went to Berkmar High School in Lilburn. The two have known each other for about 15 years, although their families have known each other for longer, Kenerly has told the AJC.

In 2000, when Kenerly had a house built in Lawrenceville, he chose his friend Jenkins to build it, according to county records. Five years later, Kenerly built a nine-bedroom mansion in the gated resort community Chateau Elan in Braselton and had a condo in Myrtle Beach. Jenkins, meanwhile, bought a $2 million property in Fort Lauderdale in 2002 and has regularly paid millions for large tracts of land in Gwinnett.

Because both are at the center of Gwinnett’s ongoing political corruption scandal, the AJC scrutinized real estate projects for which Jenkins sought a rezoning from the county’s Board of Commissioners.

To identify Jenkins’ projects, the newspaper analyzed county data, obtained through an Open Records Act request, that includes information on all rezoning cases from 2000 forward. It scoured the data for corporation names that the AJC determined, through its reporting, are connected to Jenkins.

The AJC’s findings:

  • Twenty-four rezonings were connected to Jenkins during that 12-year period, almost all of which were approved by the commission, though not all for the exact zoning designation Jenkins asked for. (Some are related to the same real estate development if, for example, the development included commercial and residential buildings.)
  • The AJC determined that Kenerly was involved – in some form or fashion – in 10 of the 24 real estate projects that went before the commission for rezonings.
  • Kenerly’s cousin, real estate agent Theresa Kenerly, worked on two of Jenkins’ real estate acquisitions that needed to be rezoned.
  • Kenerly voted in favor of Jenkins projects at least 10 times, including one in which authorities say he had a financial stake in the real estate developments.

The extent of Kevin Kenerly’s role in most of the real estate projects is unclear. Some property owners who sold land to Jenkins say Kenerly acted as a real estate broker, but didn’t know whether Kenerly had an ownership stake in the land. Others say they thought Kenerly had an ownership interest in Jenkins’ ventures, even though Jenkins’ corporations are listed as the buyer on the property deeds. Some simply describe him as the middleman between the property owners and David Jenkins.

Often Kenerly’s name does not appear in the public records that document the evolution of a project – not on the rezoning application, nor on the property records, nor in the papers detailing the development.

In October 2002, for example, Jenkins filed a request to rezone about 30 acres of land so he could build a subdivision on the edge of Lilburn’s northern city limits.

He had gotten a handful of property owners along Beaver Ruin Road under contract. According to two property owners, Theresa Kenerly, formerly Theresa Dodd, worked on Jenkins’ behalf to acquire the land.

“We dealt with Theresa Dodd, so that’s all I know,” said Blanche Vickery, who sold one and a half acres to Jenkins.

Theresa Kenerly, who chaired Kenerly’s campaigns, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Kevin Kenerly, meanwhile, submitted a letter to the county clerk’s office stating that he had a financial stake in the project.

The county commission voted to rezone the land on March 2, 2004, allowing Jenkins to build up to 148 homes on the land. Kevin Kenerly abstained from the vote.

A month later, Jenkins, using a corporation named Sydney Investments, acquired all the parcels of land for close to $4 million.

On the property, Jenkins built a 142-unit subdivision named Kingston. Kenerly’s earnings from the project, if there were any, are not known.

‘I have an ownership interest’

For six of the rezonings, the AJC unearthed letters from Kenerly in the county’s custody, in which Kenerly disclosed that he had a financial interest. The letters weren’t all kept in the same county office — the result of a staff change in the county clerk’s office, county officials said. In four of those cases, Kenerly’s letters were in the county planning department’s rezoning files for the projects. In two others, they were filed with the county clerk’s office.

All six occurred between 2000 and 2004, and Kenerly did not vote on any of them, county records show.

“Please be advised that I have an ownership interest in the business entity which has a right to certain real property affected by the [rezonings],” Kenerly wrote in a 2000 letter.

Another two rezonings have already resulted in criminal charges, both misdemeanors, because Kenerly allegedly failed to disclose that he had a stake in the projects.

The two other rezonings stem from a real estate development near Dacula. The AJC previously reported in May 2011 that Kenerly brokered $3.85 million in land deals for Jenkins. (Jenkins later sold the majority of the land to the school district.)

Though Kenerly twice voted to rezone two tracts of land for that project, District Attorney Danny Porter said recently that he isn’t charging Kenerly with any crimes in connection with those projects because the land purchases were not dependent on a successful rezoning. (In many cases, developers sign contracts with property owners stating that the contract is contingent on rezoning the land.)

“I don’t interpret that as having a financial interest in [the project],” Porter said.

An uncomfortable colleague

Jenkins enjoyed notable success on his rezoning requests: All but one were approved by the county commission. (Two rezonings, part of the same project, were initially rejected, then later approved). For the one that wasn’t approved, the commissioners did so after no one representing Jenkins showed up at the commission meeting. The real estate project had apparently fallen apart; an attorney representing Jenkins asked the county’s planning commission, which reviews rezoning cases before the county commission votes on them, to deny the project.

The county’s planning staff supported the approval of most of Jenkins’ projects, though not always at the same density Jenkins wanted, and recommended denial of two projects.

In fending off suspicion about his connection to Jenkins, Kenerly previously told the AJC that he was as tough on Jenkins as on any other developers whose projects came before the board.

“I always tell them, ‘Go back and look at all the votes that I made,’” Kenerly said of his critics, in an interview with the AJC in 2009.

In fact, the AJC’s review shows, Kenerly voted on 11 of the 24 rezoning cases the AJC found involving Jenkins, and he voted yes on all but one. The exception was the case that Jenkins decided not to pursue.

Former commissioner Marcia Neaton, who served with Kenerly, said his relationship with Jenkins made her uncomfortable.

“I questioned just about anything that had to do with David Jenkins,” Neaton said. “Because of David Jenkins – because of who he is and the relationship that [he and Kenerly] had.”

Neaton opposed six of Jenkins’ rezoning requests between 2001 and 2004.

In 2009, the AJC began investigating land purchases by Gwinnett’s county commission from prominent real estate developers. The most expensive of those transactions – $16.2 million – was from Jenkins, and Kenerly championed the purchase, saying it was “the best piece of parkland since I’ve been a commissioner.”

That land deal is now the cornerstone of the criminal case against Kenerly, who allegedly received $1 million in bribes in exchange for his vote.

The Vegas videotape

Kenerly’s relationship with Jenkins became an issue in 2006, when the commissioner was campaigning for a fourth straight term. A private investigator, who was working for a political enemy of Kenerly’s, videotaped the commissioner gambling in Las Vegas with Jenkins and other Gwinnett developers.

Kenerly brushed off the tape as a political attack and downplayed his connection to Jenkins. But the underlying message of the video was clear: Commissioner Kenerly was cozy with Gwinnett real estate developers, including Jenkins.

It’s unknown whether the relationship between Kenerly and Jenkins has dissolved. Porter, the district attorney, has heard that the two were seen playing golf together on the course at Chateau Elan.

“But certainly, the benefit of Kenerly’s membership on the board isn’t there for Jenkins anymore,” Porter said.

With the Kenerly-Jenkins era over, though, Georgia law doesn’t prohibit someone else from taking their places.

“For the vast majority of these projects, what they did was legal under Georgia law and that just doesn’t seem right at gut level,” Porter said. “It’s almost more of an indictment of our corruption laws than those two.”

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