Suspicions of corruption in DeKalb County have grown to the point where most of its elected officials are now under investigation, and its suspended leader faces a criminal trial.
The allegations of rotten government widened last week, when a witness in a separate corruption trial said he was told to bribe a commissioner, and an FBI agent confirmed in his testimony that the agency has been investigating DeKalb. In addition, the county Board of Ethics opened inquiries of whether two other commissioners used their government Visa cards for personal purchases.
County residents — left with the impression that their government officials profit off their tax money and negotiate backroom deals — are demanding reforms to repair the county’s shattered image.
“I have never seen the amount of alleged corruption and malfeasance as I have seen taking place today,” said Gil Turman, who founded the South DeKalb Neighborhood Coalition. “It’s like some kind of soap opera. Right now, it’s corruption every week.”
So far, none of those accused has been found guilty or fired. But now four out of six commissioners have ethics complaints pending against them, and former CEO Burrell Ellis is scheduled to go on trial in September to fight charges that he shook down county contractors for campaign contributions.
In federal court in South Carolina last week, the former head of a construction company testified that two businessmen asked him to pay $50,000 to $60,000 to Commissioner Stan Watson and give Atlanta Falcons box seat tickets to suspended DeKalb County Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton. In exchange, developer Richard Zahn would have received work on the county’s ongoing $1.7 billion water and sewer upgrade.
Prosecutors didn’t present evidence indicating a bribe was ever paid, but the allegation further tainted the county’s sewer project, where the investigation of Ellis and other government employees began.
The perception of crooked government has damaged DeKalb’s reputation and discouraged business investment in the county of more than 700,000 people, said former DeKalb CEO Liane Levitan. She said a culture of dishonesty in government has taken root over the last several years.
“I’m a firm believer that it’s not a one-time thing. It’s continual,” said Levitan, who led the county from 1993 to 2000. “These cases or investigations have got to happen, and they have got to happen rapidly. I hope and pray that sooner than later the issues that have come up can be brought out and settled.”
Too many DeKalb elected officials and government employees have used their jobs for greedy, selfish purposes, said Bob Wilson, who was DeKalb County’s district attorney from 1981 to 1992.
“This county is in bad shape, and it’s going to take a hard hit to clean it up,” Wilson said. “Corruption in government will erode the foundations of democracy. DeKalb has reached that point. It really is in a bad place.”
In an effort to stop the bleeding, Interim CEO Lee May last week proposed creating a position for a full-time chief integrity officer, responsible for bringing ethics concerns to the Board of Ethics, training county employees and fielding tips about questionable behavior.
May said the integrity officer would be a step toward fixing DeKalb government, and he plans to soon announce additional initiatives about how the county handles purchasing and contracting.
“The general public is tired, just as I’m tired, with what has been going on with the claims and allegations against elected officials and county employees,” May said. “There’s some things we need to fix. Let’s be honest.”
Most of the allegations against county commissioners involve spending on taxpayer-funded purchasing cards, called P-cards.
Investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found commissioners used their P-cards to pay for personal cellphone bills, airline tickets, meals and computers, along with purchases at the Apple online store, Bed Bath & Beyond and Barnes & Noble. Ethics complaints are pending against Commissioners Elaine Boyer, Larry Johnson, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Watson.
“They think they’ve become lords and masters over a bunch of subjects rather than stewards over someone else’s assets,” said John Leak, who lives in south DeKalb.
The four commissioners have denied wrongdoing, although Boyer and Watson have repaid portions of their P-card expenses.
Sutton challenged the idea that DeKalb County has more of an ethics problem than any other county in the Atlanta area. She said the real problem is that commissioners’ political opponents have filed ethics complaints to smear their names. She has previously expressed similar concerns about proposals to create an internal county auditor position, saying the auditor could have too much power to investigate politicians.
“An ethics complaint is just a complaint. There are people who have done nothing wrong. We need a way to distinguish between real problems and propaganda,” said Sutton, who supports May’s proposal for an integrity officer as a way to prevent frivolous complaints.
But many businesses that work in the county believe its ethical problems are real and significant, according to a survey conducted by a consultant for DeKalb County.
“The perception of corruption again and again came up as a hindrance and deterrent to doing business in DeKalb County,” according to an April 1 report by Angelou Economics.
More than 69 percent of businesses that responded to a stakeholder survey listed “government leadership” as the county’s most significant challenge to creating jobs and economic growth, the report said.
Residents like Jan Dunaway, who lives near Stone Mountain, said investigations need to root out corruption and clean up the county before it can move forward.
“It’s scary what’s going on in our county government,” said Dunaway, a board member of the Pride Rings in Stone Mountain community group. “There’s a pattern, and we need to get to the bottom of that.”
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