Bribery scheme details emerge

Digging Deep. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported in April that a wide-ranging federal corruption probe in S.C. touches DeKalb. In an exclusive report this week, the AJC unearthed phone records that shows a relationship between DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson and one of the defendants. Now the newspaper is the first to report that the FBI has launched a separate investigation aimed at DeKalb, which was confirmed Wednesday. The AJC will continue following every development in this important story to explain how public officials may have broken faith with taxpayers.

What we learned

Two South Carolina businessmen are fighting federal fraud and racketeering charges that they attempted to influence elected officials in Columbia, S.C., and DeKalb County. Here’s what we learned in court Wednesday about how the case affects DeKalb.

An FBI investigation of DeKalb is underway. An FBI agent confirmed during his testimony that the FBI has "an ongoing corruption case revolving around DeKalb County."

DeKalb's $1.7 billion sewer project targeted again. FBI wiretaps show the South Carolina businessmen on trial wanted a Florida developer to pay DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson to receive work on the sewer upgrade. A local investigation into DeKalb County contracting, which ended in an indictment of suspended CEO Burrell Ellis, also centered around sewer contracts.

Star witness tarnished? Former DeKalb Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton, who is likely to be a star witness in the Ellis trial, was linked to the South Carolina corruption case. Could it affect his standing in the Ellis case?

What’s next?

The defense is expected to put on its case tomorrow, and Watson could be called to testify.

Defendants in a corruption trial told the head of a construction company he’d have to pay off DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson if he wanted to do business in the county, according to testimony Wednesday in South Carolina federal court.

Prosecution witness Richard Zahn, the former CEO of a Florida construction company, testified that the defendants in the case said Watson could help him receive work on the county’s $1.7 billion water and sewer project.

“Commissioner Watson is going to need some sort of incentive. We’re thinking Falcons box seats and a financial payment,” Zahn said the defendants told him after a lunch in Atlanta in fall 2011.

The payment of $50,000 or $60,000 would have gone to Watson, and the Atlanta Falcons football tickets would have been given to suspended DeKalb County Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton, Zahn said.

Watson has denied being involved in the case, and no evidence has been presented indicating that he accepted payments or gifts. His attorney was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

An FBI agent later testified that Watson and Walton weren’t questioned in the South Carolina corruption case because the FBI in Atlanta is running a separate investigation of DeKalb.

“The FBI has an ongoing corruption case revolving around DeKalb County as well,” said agent Christopher Garrett. “We did not interview any DeKalb County officials. We did not want to interfere with the FBI’s investigation in Atlanta.”

Wednesday’s testimony entangled Watson in the case and foreshadowed that more criminal charges may be coming in DeKalb County, which is already dealing with a perception of corrupt government.

Former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis is scheduled to go on trial in September on charges that he shook down contractors for campaign contributions, and ethics cases have been launched against three commissioners.

The defendants in the South Carolina trial, Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson, are fighting charges that they used their political and personal connections to enrich themselves through a series of white-collar crimes. Pinson is the former chairman of South Carolina State University’s board of trustees, and Robinson was his business partner.

Most of their alleged schemes were in South Carolina, but one of them involved efforts to solicit a kickback from Zahn to pay a DeKalb County elected official, identified during the trial as Watson, according to a 52-count indictment.

Jurors heard extensive wiretapped recordings of phone conversations between Pinson and Robinson, where they talked about their plans to persuade Zahn to pay Watson. Watson wasn’t on any of the wiretapped calls.

“We got to tell him, Stan wants something now, you know what I mean?” Robinson said during an Oct. 29, 2011, phone call.

Pinson replied that they would take a portion of whatever money Zahn paid to Watson.

“And that’s how me and you can eat,” Pinson said on the recording.

Zahn said he felt uncomfortable with their proposal, and he doubted the project would come together for him and his company. He said they didn’t speak about the payment to Watson again, and no money changed hands.

Zahn has pleaded guilty to related charges, and he was testifying as part of a plea agreement that calls for his cooperation. The plea deal calls for him to receive a sentence of three years of probation, but he hasn’t been sentenced yet.

Zahn had previously met Watson during a dinner at a Columbia hotel with Pinson, Robinson and others, he said.

During that meeting, Pinson and Robinson said they wanted Zahn to visit DeKalb County and consider working on a project there.

“They were very confident we would have a strong shot at getting a piece of that project,” Zahn said.

Pinson also proposed that Zahn could purchase and develop the old General Motors plant site in Doraville, turning the location into a mix of DeKalb County offices, an international village and an extension of the Georgia Tech campus, Zahn said. Nothing appeared to come of those discussions.

Testimony was expected to conclude by the end of this week, and jurors would begin deliberations Monday.

So far, no federal corruption charges have been brought against DeKalb County officials.

Prosecutors in Atlanta have subpoenaed a wide variety of documents associated with charge cards issued to DeKalb County commissioners and other county employees.

Their subpoena follows reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about commissioners’ personal spending on their taxpayer-backed Visa cards.