Harsh spotlight now on ex-star

With a federal inquiry now turned on Mitch Skandalakis, friends and foes speculate about the former Fulton County Commission chairman's activities.

Editor's Note: The following story was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 21, 2000

Mitch Skandalakis sat down with an interviewer in 1997 and mused about taxes, cigars and the low pay of public officials.

Specifically, Skandalakis was talking about his salary as chairman of the Fulton County Commission. It was unfair, he told a smokers' publication called the Tobacco Times, for Atlanta's mayor to draw six figures while he earned a mere $17,000.

"I think (with) the system that pays that kind of salary, ultimately, you'll get what you pay for, " Skandalakis said. "The kind of public servants who will take it and then take bribes, to get by."

Three years later, Skandalakis has attracted the attention of federal authorities looking for exactly that kind of official.

A grand jury investigating public corruption is examining financial dealings between Skandalakis, who left office in 1998, and at least one county contractor.

Executives of JRO Group Inc., a company that sells uniforms to Fulton County, were subpoenaed to provide documents related to Skandalakis on Tuesday. A former aide to Skandalakis also has been called to testify.

George Greene, founder of a company that Skandalakis twice reported as a source of income, has pleaded guilty to bribing another commissioner. That commissioner, Michael Hightower, and Skandalakis' former chief of staff on the commission, Josh Kenyon, have both pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Greene.

No charges have been filed against Skandalakis, who has declined to speak with reporters.

But acquaintances said these are difficult times for the 42-year-old Skandalakis, who entered public life a decade ago as head of an anti-tax group called the Task Force for Good Government. The first Republican elected countywide in Fulton this century, he was a rising political star. First as a state legislator and then on the county commission, he struck a populist pose that resonated with voters dissatisfied with what they thought was an inefficient, corrupt local government. His greatest liability was an aggressive style that some considered mean-spirited, or worse.

"I don't know what the feds have, " said attorney Bob Proctor, a friend of Skandalakis' since they were classmates at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. "I'm going to be shocked and amazed and very disappointed. If Mitch was getting any money on the side, I don't know where he put it, because he certainly didn't live any kind of lifestyle that reflected it. . . . It has been a struggle for Mitch and his family financially."

Others, though, including many fellow Republicans, said they were not surprised to learn that Skandalakis is receiving scrutiny from federal authorities.

"Mitch has gone from one scrape to the next scrape to the next scrape, " said Sallie Newbill, a former Republican leader in the state Senate. "It's just all coming back to roost."

Chuck Clay, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, who lost a primary election to Skandalakis in 1998, described his former foe as "a bright, garrulous, articulate guy who, at a certain level, you can't help but like and respect."

"He is probably more of a proponent of the slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners version of politics, " Clay said. "At some point in time, you have to look in the mirror and ask, 'Do the ends justify the means?' "

Skandalakis once said that, during his childhood, his parents gave him "everything under the sun." Yet it was a matter of universal concern --- property tax reassessments --- that propelled his political career.

In 1991, during an economic recession, county homeowners received notices that their property assessments had increased exponentially. Skandalakis, a young lawyer and Sandy Springs homeowner, quickly organized not just a group to protest the higher assessments, but also a petition drive to recall the county commission chairman, Michael Lomax.

The recall effort failed. But Skandalakis received enough publicity to propel him into the state House of Representatives the next year. He didn't stay there long.

In 1993, Lomax resigned as commission chairman to run for Atlanta mayor. Skandalakis left the General Assembly to seek the chairman's job, despite long odds. No Republican had won a countywide election, and his Democratic opponent had one of the best-known names in Fulton County: Martin Luther King III.

But Skandalakis, who derisively referred to King as a "mama's boy, " won the race to complete Lomax's term, and faced only token opposition when he sought a four-year term in 1994. So he had time that year to help an ally who was challenging a Democratic incumbent commissioner, Gordon Joyner.

Skandalakis later admitted he paid for a campaign flier that contained a distorted picture of Joyner, who is black. In the flier, Joyner's skin was darkened, his lips were thickened, and an Afro hairdo was painted on his head.

The state Ethics Commission fined Skandalakis $2,000 for failing to properly report that he had paid for the flier. Joyner filed a libel suit against Skandalakis; the case was settled.

As commission chairman, Skandalakis referred to various county employees as "idiot, " "dolt" and "pencil-neck geek." His constituents loved it.

"Mitch was very good at tapping into anger and frustration at government, " said Rusty Paul, a former state Republican chairman, "and at taking advantage of the anger and frustration and galvanizing people around that." Despite his power as chairman, Skandalakis grew weary of being one of three Republicans in the county commission's political minority. "I just couldn't sit there and listen to that garbage for another four years, " he once said.

So in 1998, he gave up his commission seat and ran for lieutenant governor. The race cemented his political persona.

Well into the fall, Republican Party polls showed that Skandalakis had a good chance of beating the Democratic nominee, Mark Taylor, recalled Paul.

But then Skandalakis aired two television commercials that, Paul said, "took a race that was neck and neck and basically gave it to Mark Taylor."

In the first, Skandalakis called Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell an "incompetent boob" and said he would "kick Atlanta's ass and bring it in line before the city of Atlanta kills the state."

The second commercial --- playing off Taylor's acknowledgement that he had used cocaine two decades earlier --- was even more controversial.

"Mark Taylor has some more problems to clear up before he runs for any office, " the announcer said to begin the ad, which showed the sign outside a Cobb County drug treatment center.

As the announcer said Taylor had supported removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, the screen showed Taylor embracing Campbell --- described in production notes for the ad as "black Mayor Campbell."

As the ad ended, an actor who bore a strong resemblance to Taylor was shown lumbering down a long hall in a bathrobe. As the actor collapsed, the announcer said, "Taylor, of course, has admitted he had problems years ago. And we all wish those problems had been cured."

Taylor sued Skandalakis for libel, the third time he had been sued for defamation in six years. Early this year, they settled the case out of court, and Skandalakis donated $50,000 to a charity chosen by Taylor.

"Either the system is responsible for people like that, or the system attracts people like that, " Taylor's lawyer, Lee Parks, said Tuesday. "This person was willing to do anything to win that election."

After losing to Taylor, Skandalakis found another forum: a weekly talk show on Atlanta radio station WSB.

His show hasn't aired for the past four weeks, though, said Greg Moceri, WSB's program director.

"We've agreed he would not be on the air until there was some kind of resolution" with the federal investigation, Moceri said. "Obviously, he's got some other things going on."

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