DeKalb corruption report calls for Lee May’s resignation

A corruption investigation commissioned by DeKalb Interim CEO Lee May concludes May himself violated the public trust by taking a questionable loan from a county employee and should resign from office.

Former Attorney General Michael Bowers and investigator Richard Hyde also called on other DeKalb officials to resign, citing numerous examples of improper and potentially illegal spending by five of the county’s seven district commissioners.

“Appalling corruption and a stunning absence of leadership in the DeKalb County government are a disgrace to its citizens and an embarrassment to our state,” Bowers and Hyde wrote. “A pattern of corrosive and widespread misconduct has destroyed public confidence in the integrity of the governing authority.”

Acting on his own, May hired Bowers in March to conduct a far-reaching inquiry into DeKalb’s spending and remove the “stench of corruption and distrust” from county government. The cost of the investigation — nearing $700,000 in June — is expected to reach $1 million.

Special investigators Bowers and Hyde delivered their final report Wednesday and the results were not pretty, especially for May, who has repeatedly sought to put DeKalb’s corruption scandals in the rear-view mirror. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is seeking comment from DeKalb officials.

The report cites hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses by DeKalb commissioners and other staff, including gift cards, charges at retail stores, consulting fees and payments to campaign managers.

The investigators questioned purchases in eight county departments, including the District Attorney’s Office and the Solicitor’s Office. They said they forwarded one bribery allegation to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The investigators also slammed tens of thousands of dollars in donations that commissioners made to charities with taxpayer money, a practice they said violated the state constitution’s ban on gratuities.

They criticized May for halting their work when they still had hundreds of interviews left to conduct and thousands of more documents to review.

They called on the state Attorney General’s Office to follow up where they left off and said a grand jury should consider charges against those guilty of illegal spending.

They also said the county should try to make DeKalb employees pay back any misspent funds, offering amnesty to those who cooperate.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • The appointment of a new supervisor for all county operations with the power and authority to manage all county departments.
  • That all spending by commission members and their staff be posted each week on a public county website.
  • The closing of all purchase cards accounts used by county officials and employees. May suspended use of most cards in June after Bowers delivered some preliminary findings about P-card abuse.
  • That all records of county expenditures be kept for at least seven years.

Harsh words for May

Bowers and Hyde also conceded that many of the charges they cite could have legitimate explanations, since they didn’t get to finish their investigation after a public falling out with May in early August.

Some cases they cited appear extreme — such as Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton spending tens of thousands of dollars paying her then-boyfriend to work in her office, which the AJC reported last year. Others seem minor — such as Commission Chief of Staff Morris Williams spending $11 at a cigar store and County Clerk Barbara Sanders spending $2.99 on a Bic lighter.

But the investigators leveled their harshest criticisms at May, who they said violated the county charter by accepting a loan from Williams. The report didn’t say when May got the loan or how much it was for, but the accusation is significant because of questions still swirling around May over a payment from a county vendor.

The vendor, who had arranged for $6,500 in repairs to May’s home after a sewage line backup, claims he gave $4,000 to Williams with the understanding that he would pass it along to May to help with his personal financial problems. The vendor won a $300,000 county contract later that year, an investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News found.

May said he never saw a dollar of the $4,000 and never took part in kickbacks or pay-to-play schemes.

The investigators also cited expenses May rang up during a trip to Hawaii last year. He spent $223 on a spa treatment at the Grand Wailea Resort in Maui. He also spent $36.45 on a movie.

May told the investigators he had reimbursed the county for those expenses and would provide them documentation, but he never did, the report said.

Investigation stymied

May hired Bowers and Hyde almost seven months ago to expose waste, fraud and cronyism throughout county government and to ferret out alleged corruption.

At a press conference May held with Bowers in March, he promised the team unfettered access to county records and pledged to cooperate, even if they found out he was involved in misdeeds, too.

May reneged, the report said, hindering their investigation from the outset and finally cutting off their probe in August.

For example, while most county departments complied with requests for records, May blocked the investigators’ attempts to obtain spending records from the District Attorney’s Office, the report said.

May also asked Bowers to tell Hyde not to interview Williams, who abruptly retired as chief of staff shortly after the probe began, the report said.

This became more significant, the investigators said, after they discovered the loan to May from Williams.

“He hired us and gave us a mission of uncovering fraud, waste, abuse and corruption and we took that on in good faith,” Bowers said of May in an interview Wednesday. “But then he hides from us that he himself is engaging in what I can only call sinister conduct.”

Whatever the reason for the loan, Bowers said it violated the county’s Organizational Act, and potential penalties include removal from office. The county charter forbids government officials receiving a loan if it can influence his or her decision-making about the lender.

The investigators said they’re sending information about the loan to the GBI.

Donations to charities

The 40-page report lists hundreds of items of questionable spending, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, by other county commissioners and employees.

It cited $11,500 Sutton spent on attorneys with Bell & Washington. The AJC and Channel 2 have previously reported that the attorneys’ work included fending off Channel 2’s Richard Belcher as he asked questions about Sutton’s use of county employees at a campaign event. The investigators’ report says the attorneys’ work also involved Sutton’s personal taxes and car payments.

It cited $800 Commissioner Larry Johnson spent on a karaoke DJ. And they dinged Commissioner Kathie Gannon for buying $1,300 in gift cards from CVS, Target, Kroger and QuikTrip.

The investigators also alleged that donations to charity violated the state Constitution’s gratuities clause, which forbids governments from giving away assets without receiving anything in return.

The report said Commissioner Jeff Rader gave $20,000 to Park Pride Atlanta and $6,000 to the DeKalb Historical Society. Johnson gave $11,500 to Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Development Inc., which benefited the county’s 500-seat Porter Sanford center in south DeKalb.

The investigators recommend that the county take immediate steps to recover all purchases that were unauthorized or illegal.

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.