Fulton official steps down after AJC/Ch. 2 probe on per diem spending

A presentation is made to board members of the Development Authority of Fulton County during a meeting in August 2019 at the Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
A presentation is made to board members of the Development Authority of Fulton County during a meeting in August 2019 at the Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

A long-time member of the Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) is stepping down following an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that found tens of thousands of dollars in questionable per diem spending at the agency.

Bob Shaw is asking that his name be removed from consideration for reappointment to the DAFC board, the authority’s current chairman, Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, said Monday in a statement to the AJC. Shaw is also stepping down from his current seat on the board, in which he had been serving on an expired term.

DAFC is a government agency that is tasked with recruiting jobs and businesses to the county. The Fulton authority is empowered to grant tax breaks and other incentives to companies and developers.

The AJC and Channel 2 reported June 1 Shaw was paid nearly $91,000 in per diems since January 2019, with records showing at times he collected multiple $200 fees on the same day and thousands of dollars just for signing documents. Shaw joined the board in the mid-1990s and served as its chairman from 2002 until late last year.

Bob Shaw, seen here in a recent specially called Zoom meeting, is the former chairman of the Development Authority of Fulton County.
Bob Shaw, seen here in a recent specially called Zoom meeting, is the former chairman of the Development Authority of Fulton County.

For years, DAFC paid per diems to its appointed board of directors, mostly business executives, without a written policy. From January 2019 through April of this year, DAFC paid its nine-member volunteer board nearly $300,000, an AJC analysis showed.

State law allows DAFC and development authorities in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties 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.

Fulton Commissioner Lee Morris, who nominated Shaw before shelving the pick last week, said Monday he spoke with Shaw on Sunday about his nomination.

When asked what prompted Shaw’s decision to take himself out of the running, Morris said: “I think this is perhaps a reaction to the news story, and a reaction that perhaps the development authority needs to move on with a fresh start.”

Shaw did not immediately return an email message seeking comment.

Commissioner Lee Morris speaks during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Commissioner Lee Morris speaks during a meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Shaw’s current seat expired May 31. That seat is slated to become one of two board positions nominated by either Atlanta Public Schools (APS) or Fulton County Schools. The schools have yet to nominate candidates for their two board posts.

Morris said he’d asked his current representative, Tom Tidwell, to step down and make room for Shaw to be reappointed. Morris has previously praised Shaw’s years of experience in economic development.

Tidwell’s term runs through May 2023.

“He was going to resign as a favor to me,” Morris said of Tidwell.

The school districts each fought for seats on the Fulton authority board arguing the tax breaks take a chunk out of their bottom lines. Morris said he has been in touch with the school districts, which have no deadline to appoint board members.

The Republican commissioner now said he wants Tidwell to continue because he represents his point of view. Tidwell is often the lone voice of dissent on the board against projects in areas like Buckhead or Midtown, which Morris said need no help to lure businesses.

“They’re not really incentivizing development, they’re just following the market,” Morris said.

Tidwell declined comment.

‘Good first step,’ says critic

Julian Bene, former board member of the city’s development authority, Invest Atlanta, is challenging four DAFC tax break deals in court. He provided the AJC and Channel 2 with DAFC records that revealed the per diem collected by board members.

Last week, Bene presented Fulton commissioners with 11 steps to reform the authority, including stricter ethics disclosures, ending per diems and enacting rules reining in tax breaks. Bene also called on DAFC not to grant tax breaks in the city of Atlanta as the City Council and APS have demanded.

He called Shaw stepping down a “good first step.”

“We need more reform-minded board members to be appointed,” Bene said. “We will be watching whether they begin to respect City Council and the APS board resolutions that they stop giving away tax money in Atlanta.”

DAFC claims tax breaks granted since 2019 are responsible for billions in corporate investment, which grows the tax base, and will lead to tens of thousands of jobs.

But critics say they often are giveaways for projects that would have happened without them, often in red hot parts of the city. The tax breaks as a result place a heavier property tax burden on other businesses and homeowners, critics say.

Unspecified reforms

In his statement, Turpeau praised Shaw for his 26 years in service to DAFC.

Turpeau took over from Shaw as chairman in November. That month, the board’s executive committee approved the authority’s first per diem policy, which capped payments to members at $200 per day.

Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, seen here in a recen specially called Zoom meeting, is the chairman of the Development Authority of Fulton County.
Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, seen here in a recen specially called Zoom meeting, is the chairman of the Development Authority of Fulton County.

Daily per diems are authorized for attendance at board and committee meetings, representation of the authority at outside events and work totaling at least two hours directly related to board business. Reviewing and completing documents counts, as does travel to meetings and waiting on couriers to deliver documents.

That $200 per diem rate, however, remains an outlier. It is nearly double the $105 fee paid to members of the powerful Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, a board with far greater responsibilities that has oversight of 26 colleges and universities.

Turpeau said the fees are appropriate because the agency only has three staffers and “the scope of the board’s workload and time commitment is extensive.”

In his statement, Turpeau said the authority would “further strengthen our policies and practices … and provide extensive training to ensure current and new members of the board will have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities.”

But Turpeau did not outline what policies and practices would be improved, only to say in response to questions that the authority would coordinate the effort with Fulton commissioners.

Our reporting

A joint AJC/Channel 2 investigation last week into the Development Authority of Fulton County found tens of thousands of dollars in questionable per diem payments among some members of the agency’s board. Bob Shaw, a former chairman, was paid nearly $91,000 from January 2019 to April, and records show he was paid multiple per diems on the same day and for signing authority documents. Fulton commissioners recently tabled his reappointment to the board.

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