Gwinnett corruption probe may be stalled

Two years after a former Gwinnett County commissioner was sent to federal prison for taking bribes from an undercover agent, an investigation that appeared poised to bring down more of her associates has not netted a single new indictment.

That has surprised some people who were involved in the case.

At the time Shirley Lasseter was sentenced, prosecutors said their investigation was widening. Last year, when developer Mark Gary was given a reduced sentence for his cooperation, Assistant United States Attorney Doug Gilfillan said he expected others to be charged.

“I’m kind of dumbfounded why things have not developed past those initial indictments,” said Bill Thomas, an attorney who represented Lasseter’s son, John Fanning. “I would have thought that something would happen by now.”

If he was a betting man, Oliver Halle said, he would guess that the investigation has stalled. Halle, who worked corruption cases for the FBI in Atlanta for 17 years, said there is one possible exception: if prosecutors are using someone who will plead guilty in the future to widen the investigation and bring more people in.

“I have to believe it wouldn’t take two years with their cooperation to put together a case,” he said. “I don’t know what to make of it without knowing more. It would appear that insufficient evidence was developed.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office would not comment on the case, and FBI Special Agent Stephen Emmett said his department does not provide updates on investigations. There is no way to know definitively if the case has concluded, or if it is continuing methodically.

Either is possible. The statute of limitations for tax crimes and for conspiracy have not yet passed, said Jerry Froelich, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. And while Gwinnett leaders say they think the lack of additional indictments means no one else will be swept up in the sting, Froelich said potential defendants usually wouldn’t know that they’re being investigated.

“You may not know your bank account’s been subpoenaed,” he said.

As more time passes, it becomes less likely that someone else will be indicted, said Jessica Gabel, a professor of criminal law at Georgia State University. After two years, it is harder to find witnesses who remember dates and names, she said.

“It’s unlikely you would see anything else come down the pipeline on it,” she said.

But Matthew McCoyd, a former assistant district attorney in DeKalb County, said it would not be unusual for a public corruption case to go on for this long.

“Those kind of investigations take time,” said McCoyd, who is now the associate director of the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution at Emory’s law school. “You don’t want to rush.”

In 2012, Lasseter was sentenced to 33 months in prison after she pleaded guilty to bribery. She accepted $36,500 from an undercover FBI agent who purported to be a businessman who wanted her vote on a real estate project. Fanning, her son, also pleaded guilty in the bribery scheme and to drug charges, as did a former zoning board member, Hall County businessman Carl "Skip" Cain. Both were sentenced to 57 months in prison.

Gary, the developer and a former Gwinnett planning commissioner, was sentenced to two years in prison after he admitted paying Lasseter and Fanning $30,000 in casino chips for Lasseter’s 2009 vote on a waste transfer station.

Lasseter is due to be released in May. Before she pleaded guilty and resigned from the Board of Commissioners, she taped telephone calls, wore a wire and allowed the FBI to use her home as a base of operations.

“I think the FBI does a very thorough job, ” she said in 2012, after she was sentenced. “I certainly don’t think they would stop with the smallest fish in the pond.”

The timing of the investigation doesn’t bother Sabrina Smith, chairman of Georgia Watchdogs and a Lawrenceville resident. As long as investigators are continuing their work diligently, she said, she doesn’t care how long it takes.

But Robert Byars, a Peachtree Corners resident, said he thinks investigators are doing Gwinnett a disservice by leaving the case in limbo. Byars, who ran for county commission in 2010, said he wants to see others brought to justice.

“We still have a culture of corruption,” he said. “It may not be present at this time, but the roots are still there. Until everyone who participated in it is brought to justice, the job will not be done.”

Richard Rackleff, a 27-year FBI veteran and the chief forensic examiner at Federal Polygraph Associates, said the process usually works faster than it has in Gwinnett. The long lead time makes him suspect the quality of the evidence against any other potential targets. Sometimes it can be contradictory, he said, and that “can leave a case hanging on forever.”

The delay can come because of the need to locate bank records, phone records and other evidence that can back up what people may say, McCoyd said. Because an indictment can ruin a political career, prosecutors often want to be certain they can make their case before they make the leap. As such, he said, no one is out of the woods until the statute of limitations has run out.

Danny Porter, Gwinnett's district attorney, said since Lasseter's resignation, and investigations into former Commission Chairman Charles Bannister and County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, there has been a heightened awareness of potential corruption in the county. Kenerly pleaded no contest in August and was sentenced to 10 years' probation; Bannister resigned in lieu of being indicted.

“People are being more careful,” Porter said. “I’m not saying they’re not doing it.”

Since Lasseter was caught, the county has rewritten its ethics policy. Leaders are trying to be more transparent, said District 2 Commissioner Lynette Howard. Howard, who said she was interviewed by the FBI, said she thinks the county is in “such a better place” than it was when Lasseter was caught. Commissioners have worked hard to restore trust, she said.

Lasseter will continue to cooperate as needed, said her attorney, Stephen Johnson. But Johnson, with the Federal Defenders Program, said he did not know if any other indictments were imminent.

“I’m not privy to the government’s investigation,” he said. “I do not know why nothing has developed.”

Thomas, Fanning’s attorney, said he found it unusual that there had so far been no other indictments. Usually, he said, the U.S. Attorney’s office works more quickly.

“Nothing is happening,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s dead in the water.”