Controversial fees paid to Fulton board members may not have been legal, officials say

Development authority members collected nearly $800,000 since 2015, AJC found.
Appointed members to the Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) collected has paid its appointed board members nearly $800,000 in per diem since the beginning of 2015, new documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Phil Skinner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Appointed members to the Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) collected has paid its appointed board members nearly $800,000 in per diem since the beginning of 2015, new documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Appointed members to the Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) collected nearly $800,000 in per diem since the beginning of 2015, new documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

Just three members drew nearly $600,000, or three-quarters of the total, in payments of $200 per meeting attended or, in many cases, $200 for each official action taken at a particular meeting. The per diem is nearly twice the rate paid to regents in the state university system.

Now Fulton County officials tell the AJC there may have been no authorization from commissioners for DAFC board members to collect that kind of money. And two Fulton commissioners and a taxpayer watchdog say an effort to force board members to repay at least some of those funds should be on the table.

“If dollars were paid that were not authorized by law, then the question of potential repayment certainly has to arise,” said Fulton Commissioner Lee Morris.

The county is still researching if there was a commission vote to authorize DAFC’s $200 per diem rate as required by state law. So far, Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts and Commissioner Morris said their offices and the county’s law department have not been able to find record of commissioners approving a $200 daily rate. Nor could reporters at the AJC.

On June 1, an AJC and Channel 2 Action News investigation uncovered tens of thousands of dollars in questionable per diem payments, including some board officers paid by the number of items on meeting agendas or for signing official documents.

For years, DAFC paid per diems to its appointed board of directors, mostly business executives, without a written policy, handing out $200 daily fees in ways that make it difficult to determine if they were legal or appropriate.

Morris drafted legislation slated for Wednesday’s commission meeting to cut DAFC’s per diems nearly in half and cap them at a maximum of $105 per day. But Morris said that legislation likely will be tabled until commissioners can iron out if the board fees were ever authorized in the first place.

“The law department has looked and looked to see if the board of commissioners has ever set the $200 amount, and so far nobody has found anything, which means that maybe the per diem is zero and never should have been paid,” Morris said.

DAFC Chairman and interim executive director Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV pointed to a May 2021 document on the county’s website outlining commissioners’ recent approval of certain board changes that notes a $200 stipend per meeting as proof the board OK’d the director fees.

But Morris and other county officials said the document isn’t legislation nor proof of commission approval.

“The information could have been put on the website, for example, by someone who asked the DAFC staff what the stipend was,” Morris said. “I’m sure whoever put it on the site didn’t research the (Board of Commissioners) minutes.”

Until November of last year, DAFC had no per diem policy. Experts told the AJC it might be difficult for Fulton to compel board members to return the money if there wasn’t a policy and if the $200 rate was never authorized, noting that the state law governing development authorities doesn’t address the issue.

The statute doesn’t outline a claw back mechanism nor does it contain phrases related to the reasonableness of per diems, which might provide the county a way to contest some of the board fees.

“It’s unclear whether there’s a legal avenue to get it back,” said Byung J. “BJay” Pak, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia who is now a partner at Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird.

Ethically, Pitts said he thinks any inappropriate per diems ought to be repaid. But he also wasn’t sure how the commission could trigger such action.

“I think it would be very difficult,” he said.

Three get big payouts

State law allows just four local development authorities to pay per diems to reimburse board members for their time. But DAFC is the only one that does.

Critics contend Fulton taxpayers pay a high price for public service other communities get for free, and that the board fees provide an incentive for the authority to approve lucrative tax breaks.

The June 1 AJC report found long-time DAFC chairman Bob Shaw was paid nearly $91,000 from January 2019 to April, including at least $20,800 for signing documents. Shaw stepped down from the board and asked for his name to be removed from consideration for reappointment to the board following the AJC/Channel 2 investigation.

New documents obtained by the AJC this week show board members received about $795,000 from January 2015 to April of this year, and most of that went to Shaw and two other board members.

Shaw, who was the board’s chairman until November, was paid nearly $360,000 in per diem since the beginning of 2015.

Sam Jolley Jr. and Walter Metze, two long-time members whose terms recently ended, collected $138,750 and $100,950, respectively, since 2015, DAFC records show.

Shaw, Jolley and Metze did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

William Perry, who leads Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said anyone who claimed more than $200 in a day or for any act other than attending authority board meetings should repay the money.

“It feels like a kick in the gut,” Perry said.

Rate may be lowered

Turpeau said the authority board instituted its first per diem policy in November, which capped payments at $200 per day. He said the authority is committed to further refining its policies.

He said going forward, DAFC will post per diem amounts paid by member each quarter on its website, more specifically define what acts qualify for per diem and add a per diem approval form.

He said members will be required to complete a Fulton County Income and Financial Disclosure Report annually, something Morris has been pushing.

Morris’ proposed per diem cap would match the rate paid to members of the state Board of Regents, which oversees the University System of Georgia. Morris also would require DAFC to report its per diem spending to the commission.

Morris said the county attorney is researching how to require board members to file financial disclosures.

As a member of Invest Atlanta, the city’s development authority, Morris said he must disclose financial details.

“The Development Authority (members) don’t have to file any financial disclosures anywhere, and as an authority that in effect spends hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money there ought to be some financial disclosure,” Morris said. “It’s just routine when you’re dealing with public dollars.”

High-priced board

Since 2015, members of the Development Authority of Fulton County and its executive director, Michel Turpeau, have received nearly $800,000 in per diem. Here’s a list of current members, their years of service, and total per diem they have collected through April 2021.

Robert Shaw, 2015-2021, $358,050

Samuel Jolley, 2015-2021, $138,750

Walter Metze, 2015-2021, $100,950

Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, 2017-2021, $45,000

Samuel Bacote, 2015-2021, $39,750

Steve Broadbent, 2015-2021, $29,200

Kyle Lamont, 2019-2021, $25,000

Brandon Beach, 2018-2021, $12,600

Thomas Tidwell, 2019-2021, $9,400

Source: Development Authority of Fulton County