Former state Attorney General Mike Bowers began a sweeping investigation Wednesday into corruption in DeKalb County, tarnished by years of accusations of cronyism and dirty government.
Bowers, who was hired by Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, will have unfettered access to county employees and documents in his search of malfeasance among DeKalb’s more than 6,000 government employees, from restaurant inspectors to senior leaders.
But his power is limited. He can’t focus his investigation on the DeKalb Commission because it’s not under May’s authority, though both he and May said they hope commissioners cooperate. And, ultimately, criminal behavior would still have to be pursued by law enforcement agencies.
Numerous DeKalb officials recently have been accused of shady deal-making. Suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis faces a June retrial for allegedly shaking down contractors; ex-Commissioner Elaine Boyer will be sentenced Friday for defrauding taxpayers of more than $90,000; and Zoning Board of Appeals member Jerry Clark pleaded guilty to a bribery charge last month.
“We’re going to root out conflicts of interest, corruption, malfeasance and misfeasance, so help me God,” said Bowers said, known lately for his state investigation of standardized test cheating in Atlanta Public Schools.
May said he hired Bowers to remove the “stench of corruption and distrust” permeating the county.
“He’s a man that takes no prisoners and will do what it takes to preserve the public confidence and integrity in our government,” May said.
May and his senior staff won’t be immune to Bowers’ inspection.
“There is no tolerance for corruption in my administration,” May said. “I think Mike could throw me in jail if he thinks I’m doing something wrong. This administration is willing to take on an endeavor that could possibly go even to my office, and I’m fine with that.”
Bowers’ investigation will last at least 120 days, and he and his team will produce a report that will be released to the public without any prior review by May or his administration. One of Bowers’ investigators will be Richard Hyde, who also handled the Atlanta schools cheating case and now works for the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission that oversees judges’ conduct.
A special grand jury investigation that finished in January 2013 eventually led to the criminal charges against Ellis, but none of the other 11 government employees and contractors named in the report has been indicted. The county also hasn’t followed through with the report’s recommendation to hire an independent auditor who would expose fraud and improve efficiency.
Bowers said he will use the special grand jury’s report as part of his probe.
Government employees have repeatedly taken advantage of the county’s lax oversight, said Albert Trujillo, the foreman of the special grand jury.
“They didn’t have any fear of getting caught because no one was looking,” Trujillo said. “Whenever there had been an opportunity for money to change hands … it seemed they took that as an opportunity to put money in their pockets.”
Commissioner Nancy Jester, who has at times been a critic of May, said she welcomed Bowers’ investigation.
“It’s my belief that there are real and significant issues of conflict and malfeasance within the government.”
Brenda Pace, a South DeKalb resident who has been advocating for reforms like hiring an independent auditor, said the investigation will help repair the county, but long-term changes are also needed. A measure to create the independent auditor position is pending in the Georgia General Assembly.
“It’s going to make a huge difference because we’ll finally get rid of these allegations,” Pace said of the investigation. “Taxpayer dollars are being wasted, big-time.”
Bowers will be paid $400 an hour, and his investigators will be paid $300 an hour from the county’s non-departmental budget. The county didn’t provide an estimate of the total cost, but May has some discretion over spending from existing budgets.
Bowers warned that May is taking a risk by seeking this investigation because Bowers doesn’t know what he will find.
“We are sort of like rolling cannons on the deck of a ship,” Bowers said. “There are some bad apples — woe be unto you. But the good decent folks, you have nothing to fear from us.”