Corruption investigation targets DeKalb County

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.”

Previous allegations of corruption

  • Suspended CEO Burrell Ellis awaits a June retrial on charges that he extorted campaign contributions from county contractors.
  • Former Commissioner Elaine Boyer and her husband have pleaded guilty to using taxpayer money for themselves.
  • Jerry Clark, a former member of the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals, pleaded guilty last month to taking a bribe for his vote.
  • The Georgia Court of Appeals denied new trials Wednesday for former DeKalb school employees Pat Reid and her ex-husband, Tony Pope, who were convicted last year following allegations they manipulated school construction contracts. Former Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleaded guilty under a plea agreement.
  • Former DeKalb Custodial Services Manager Patrick Jackson has pleaded not guilty to charges that he steered janitorial work to a company in exchange for a luxury apartment, furniture and utilities.
  • Dameco Moss, a DeKalb grease inspector, pleaded guilty in May 2011 to bribery and theft for shaking down payments from restaurant owners.

About the investigation

Q: Why did Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May hire an outside investigator?

A: Numerous allegations of corruption have been brought against county government officials over the last few years, with no end in sight. May said he wants to show leadership by addressing the problem.

Q: How will the investigation be independent?

A: May hired former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, but May won't oversee Bowers' inquiry. Any employee or official who refuses to cooperate with Bowers' questioning could be fired, according to May's executive order Wednesday. May won't have any prior review of Bowers' findings before they're made public.

Q: Will the investigation change anything in DeKalb?

A: Bowers will report criminal behavior to law enforcement authorities, and he will make recommendations to May for correcting problems he sees in county government.

Q: What will Bowers look for?

A: Bowers is tasked with evaluating the need for an inspector general position, reviewing internal investigation protocols, evaluating personnel policies, investigating bid-rigging and vendor selection and following up on complaints and tips.

Q: Isn't the FBI already investigating corruption in DeKalb?

A: Yes, but it’s unclear who the FBI is targeting or whether criminal charges will be brought. Bowers’ investigation is broader, and it goes beyond public corruption to include government hiring, efficiency and safeguards over taxpayer money.