DeKalb acts on contractor’s sewer-project problems

DeKalb County officials moved Thursday toward firing a company that had been working on a sewer plant project, days after they pulled it off the job citing sub-par work. The company was named in a special grand jury report looking into corruption in county contracts.

The hiring of Desmear Systems, a small Tucker company whose president gave indicted CEO Burrell Ellis a $2,500 political contribution as it was preparing to submit a bid last year, is an example of systematic failure in the county’s contracting process, county officials said.

Desmear, according to civil court records, had trouble coming up with a performance bond in 2012 after it was approved for a $7.7 million project to excavate the land at the Snapfinger wastewater treatment plant. Desmear, which had recently paid off a large lien and was being sued for nonpayment by an insurance company, later provided a bond that proved to be fraudulent, court records state.

The contract it received was the first major contract awarded in a planned $1.35 billion overhaul of DeKalb County’s aging sewer and water system.

Officials shut down the Snapfinger job Friday citing shoddy work, including a structurally unsound retaining wall meant to protect the plant expansion. Neither the company nor its owner has been accused of any crime. Ellis denies any wrongdoing.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May said he and other leaders have decided the remaining work, and any repairs needed, will be rolled into the second phase of the Snapfinger project, slated to start next year. By then, officials expect to know where the process failed and will take action.

“There will be firings,” May said, referring to any contractors and county workers found to be at fault.

A person answering the telephone at Desmear said the owner was not available to speak. In a lawsuit filing this year, Desmear said it was defrauded by a crooked insurance agent when obtaining the second bond.

Desmear is also having problems completing a high-profile streetscape project on Tenth Street near Piedmont Park.

“They are significantly behind,” said Shannon Powell, chief operating office of the Midtown Alliance, the organization overseeing the project that includes improved sidewalks and lighting, repaired street pavement and landscaped medians with trees. She said the contractor has had to redo some work but what has been done so far has met standards.

Powell said Desmear was a vendor qualified by both the city and state and was the low bidder at $924,000, almost $200,000 less than the next-lowest bid. The project started in October 2011 and was to be completed in November 2012. “Like so many construction projects, this project experienced delays for a variety of reasons including rain (and) change of scope,” she said. “The progress has been very slow and disappointing.”

A former subcontractor said Desmear was unprepared. Cornelia Spence, president of C&S Construction & Consulting, said he came onto the job in March 2012 and, “those guys didn’t have the first piece of equipment. They didn’t even have a Port-a-Potty up.”

Spence said he was to receive $760,000 from Desmear but had problems when he started asking for payments and was terminated.

Desmear, in a letter sent to Spence in June 2012, said C & S was slow and not performing quality work.

DeKalb leaders admit they knew little about Desmear’s reputation. They didn’t know Desmear’s president, Omotayo Idowu, had been indicted in Nevada in 1999, accused of paying $6,000 to a company official to give him favorable treatment on a subcontract. He was acquitted the following year. His attorney there said Idowu was the victim of shady middlemen.

May said the sewer-project episode demonstrates “we need to ensure people vying for these huge projects have the ability and the capacity to do them. Our system has got to change so we can uncover that.”

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