DeKalb corruption lawsuit settled for $1.5M

DeKalb County agreed Friday to pay $1.5 million to settle a 7-year-old lawsuit filed by a landscaper who accused officials of withholding payments and soliciting bribes, complaints that led to a wide-ranging investigation into public corruption.

Paul Champion of Champion Tree Service sued the county for refusing to pay him $888,000 for tree cutting and land clearing in 2008. Champion said DeKalb officials held back money because he wouldn’t pay one of them off.

But the county said Champion had engaged in “massive overbilling” in collaboration with several contractors and government employees. He also was accused of collecting payments for work that was never performed.

The back-and-forth allegations led former District Attorney Robert James to launch a sprawling special grand jury investigation that eventually found a different target: DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis. Ellis was later found guilty of attempted extortion and perjury. The Georgia Supreme Court threw out the convictions Nov. 30, and charges were dropped this week.

Of the 12 people that the 2013 special grand jury report recommended for further criminal investigation related to the case, only Ellis faced charges.

Friday’s settlement, tentatively agreed to Jan. 30 as a jury pool waited to begin the trial, ends the case without resolving any of the claims. Neither party admitted wrongdoing.

Champion’s attorney, Bob Wilson, said the county’s leadership did the right thing to end the case.

“The county and our client can move forward rather than dwelling on the problems of the past,” Wilson said.

Newly elected DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond declined to comment on the settlement, which includes a $700,000 payment to Champion along with $800,000 for his attorney fees.

The DeKalb Board of Commissioners voted to resolve the case Tuesday to reduce the financial risk to taxpayers, said Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson.

“We decided to cut our losses, and I’m sure that Mr. Champion did as well,” Johnson said. “We just wanted to go on and settle the case and put it behind us. … You never know how a jury would come back.”

The origins of the case date to 2006, when Champion was preparing to bid on a landscaping contract to clear 500 miles of trees, brush and grass so that the county could map manholes and sewer lines.

The grand jury’s report said Champion submitted two bids — one for himself and one for a fake company created by a friend who didn’t even own a chain saw. The friend, Christian Vann, who was actually employed by Cartoon Network, won the $2.2 million contract. He planned to have Champion do all the work, according to the report. Following a dispute over fees, the contract was canceled.

Then in 2007, Champion won a subsequent land-clearing contract, which earned him $3.2 million. Champion’s lawsuit said the county still owed him $888,000, while county officials said in court documents he overcharged at least $613,000 by submitting invoices that “grossly exaggerated” the amount of space he had cleared.

As Champion tried to get paid, he confronted former DeKalb Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton. Champion said Walton tried to extort bribes from him, an allegation Walton has denied.

Walton didn’t return a phone call seeking comment this week.

DeKalb’s attorneys wrote in court filings that former DeKalb Deputy Watershed Director Nadine Maghsoudlou conspired with Champion to help him get paid. The county alleges she pressured another employee to sign off on falsified documents. Her attorney didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Maghsoudlou’s brother-in-law, Hadi Haeri, was working for Champion at the same time as he was a contractor for the county. DeKalb’s court filings alleged Haeri and Maghsoudlou worked together to get Champion’s invoices approved.

DeKalb fired Maghsoudlou and Haeri after Champion's lawsuit was filed in 2010.

Haeri’s attorney said he was transparent about his work relationships and performed the jobs he was hired to do.

“It’s great this case is settled, but it’s absurd it went for so many years and the taxpayers had to foot the bill,” said the attorney, Yasha Heidari. “A number of innocent people like my client were dragged through the mud.”

James decided last year he wouldn’t seek further charges related to the special grand jury’s report, saying there wasn’t enough evidence. Champion, Haeri and Maghsoudlou were among those recommended for criminal investigation in the report.

In a separate case, Kevin Ross, a political consultant suspected of bid-rigging in the special grand jury report, won an $11.3 million lawsuit last year that asserted he was falsely accused. But that judgment is in question because the two businessmen he sued may not have ever been served with proper notice of the suit.

DeKalb is moving past allegations of wrongdoing without resolving them, said Commissioner Jeff Rader.

“This particular case involve(s) alleged criminal actions that have never been brought to a grand jury or trial, and I don’t see any prospects of them getting there now,” Rader said before the commission’s vote to approve the settlement. The vote was 6-0, and Rader abstained.

The special grand jury

A special grand jury investigation in 2013 made several recommendations:

  • Indict CEO Burrell Ellis.

Ellis was indicted and found guilty of four felonies in 2015, but the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the convictions Nov. 30.

  • Investigate 11 other former government officials and vendors for criminal wrongdoing.

No charges were ever brought.

  • Eliminate DeKalb County's powerful CEO position.

The Georgia General Assembly is considering a review of the county’s government structure.

  • Hire a full-time ethics officer

Stacey Kalberman became DeKalb’s ethics officer in March.

  • Hire an independent internal auditor

John Greene became DeKalb’s chief audit executive in October.

  • Reorganize purchasing and contracting.

New purchasing policies implemented and department personnel reorganized.

  • Eliminate the director of public safety position appointed by the CEO.

No action taken.

  • Outsource county IT department

No action taken.

Source: Special Purpose Grand Jury report