DeKalb corruption report was wrong about CEO’s hotel bill

A month ago, his own hired corruption investigators turned on him, calling him a liar and telling him to resign.

But DeKalb County’s acting CEO, Lee May, showed no fear standing in front of a hostile audience at Dunwoody City Hall last week, making his case that two of the state’s most prolific sleuths botched an allegation against him.

He didn’t spend taxpayer money on a massage and an adult movie, May told the audience. He paid with his own money. It’s right there on the hotel bill that the investigators attached as an exhibit to their damning 40-page report.

“They knew that information,” May said, “but yet they made it seem like I paid for a trip to Hawaii and a spa and a movie on the county, and that was never true.”

A woman on the second row interrupted him, saying she didn’t believe him. Moments later, she held up a handmade sign: “Lee May resign.” He didn’t flinch.

May had a point about the hotel charges, a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. The newspaper found no documentary evidence that May ever used county money to cover the expenses. The AJC found other inaccuracies in the report as well.

May has seized on the errors to challenge the credibility of a document used to impugn his leadership of Georgia’s fourth most-populous county. Gaps in the report have also allowed May to blur the most serious allegation, that he borrowed money from a subordinate, which would be a violation of the county’s organizational act.

Former state Attorney General Mike Bowers and investigator Richard Hyde said any shortcomings in their final product, produced at a cost of $885,000, were the fault of May, who suspended them in the middle of their work and demanded a speedy write-up of their findings and recommendations.

Hyde pointed to his opening page, which begins, “This document is only an overview of some of our findings up to the date this assignment was terminated,” adding, “It is not the ‘final report’ as envisioned when we were retained.”

“We weren’t allowed to finish,” Hyde told the AJC. “And I guess I should have gotten a stamp and put that at the bottom of every page.”

The GBI is currently weighing the substance of the report on orders from Gov. Nathan Deal, who appointed May to the interim position after the suspension of CEO Burrell Ellis.

Meanwhile, May is fighting for political survival in a series of “up close and personal” community meetings such as the one in Dunwoody, telling audiences how his hired investigators veered off mission, then wrote up a sloppy screed that made wild allegations, fudged facts and portrayed legitimate expenses as illegal.

“I think he’s convincing a lot of people, when he’s there in person making his case,” said transparency advocate William Perry, who has attended four of the six forums so far. “I think he’s coming out with the people in the room stronger than he was going in.”

But Decatur resident Beth Long, who has been to five meetings and held up the handmade sign Tuesday, said May has given inconsistent answers to some questions.

“He comes across to me like a car salesman,” she said.

Another big error the AJC found in the investigators’ report concerned an allegation that Commissioner Stan Watson spent more than $90,000 on printing and mailing in 2008 and 2009. Watson wasn’t even in office then — the money was actually spent by his predecessor, Connie Stokes.

In other instances, the authors got the substance right, but were sloppy in laying out details.

The Sanitation department did not hire back an employee arrested for driving drunk in a county vehicle the week after he resigned. The trash collector actually got his job back about six months later — which is laid out in the investigators’ own notes, obtained by the AJC through an open records request.

And the county was not wrapped up in a money-wasting $2.4 million contract with T-Mobile Communications. The company, out of Tucker, is called Mobile Communications, which was also reflected accurately in the investigators’ notes.

A disputed hotel bill

Perhaps the most sensational allegation in the investigators' report — under the heading "Specific Improper Spending" — was May's "purchase of a movie ($36.45) and a spa treatment ($222.71) during his December 2014 stay at the Grand Wailea Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Spa in Hawaii," while on official business at a National Association of Counties meeting.

The report says May claimed he reimbursed the county for those charges, but never produced proof. But the AJC found no record of county money ever paying for those expenses, meaning there was nothing for May to pay back.

The bill for four nights totaled $1,536. It shows a $565 deposit paid in November with a Visa card that the AJC confirmed was May’s county P-card. Hotel manager Cynthia Rada said that sum covered two nights’ room fees.

The remainder of the bill, including two additional nights, a restaurant tab, bar tabs, a 50-minute massage and the movie were paid with a different Visa card, according to Keone Reyes, who works in accounts receivable for the hotel. May says that’s his personal bank card, and the AJC found no evidence to the contrary.

May’s spokesman, Burke Brennan, provided a smartphone screen grab of a Bank of America online banking page, showing a debit from the Grand Wailea resort that is identical to the $971 credit on the bill. May’s name appears on the “advanced tiered interest checking” account.

May told the AJC he will also obtain a statement from Bank of America tying his personal bank account to his personal Visa card, a process which could take several weeks. He declined an interview request for this story.

Bowers and Hyde said they will not issue a correction but questioned why May didn’t cooperate when they asked for proof that he reimbursed the county for the spa treatment and the movie.

“He’s had five months to present those records,” Hyde said. “At some point, you quit asking.”

Borrowing from a subordinate

Far more crucial was the allegation that May took a loan from Morris Williams, a former high-level county official within May’s inner circle who abruptly resigned shortly after Bowers and Hyde began digging into the county’s business. Borrowing money from a subordinate would be an ethics code violation and grounds for removal from office.

In a recorded interview, Hyde obtained what sounds like an admission; May refers to borrowing “a couple of hundred dollars” from Williams. But because Hyde never circled back for a more probing interrogation, it was never established what kind of loan it was, how much money was involved or when the money changed hands.

An exchange of money between May and Williams assumed greater significance after the AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported that a county vendor claims he gave Williams $4,000 to give to May, which May denied ever receiving.

At a forum in Lithonia, May characterized the money he borrowed from Williams as not a loan but the aggregate of money he borrowed for meals and incidentals, saying he “took a couple of hundred dollars over a decade.

“And in my mind, I’m thinking, $20 for a meal here and, you know, like that, but not a loan,” May said.

Hyde said he intended to re-interview May and pin him down on the transactions, but May cut off all communication when he ordered them to wrap up their work. He said he also would have sought out Williams, had the investigation gone on.

Bowers said there’s no doubt May admitted to taking a loan.

“If you put that in front of 10 juries, 10 juries will say he affirmatively answered that question,” Bowers said.

The county’s ethics code says why a financial relationship with a subordinate would be wrong: A loan could cloud a boss’ decision-making about the lender.

In the recorded conversation, May admits promoting Williams despite a lackluster work ethic. May describes him as someone who “didn’t show up for work.”

Williams went from being Board of Commissioners chief of staff to deputy chief operating officer over public works and infrastructure, bumping his annual pay from $137,500 to $158,000, personnel records show.

“Here’s the thing. Morris didn’t have the best reputation,” May says, according to Hyde’s notes of the interview. “But I chose to ignore it.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article

The impact so far

Despite taking heavy criticism by Interim CEO Lee May, the Bowers/Hyde corruption report has already led to changes within DeKalb County’s government. Among them:

  • DeKalb County Attorney O.V. Brantley has advised commissioners to stop using their office budgets to donate to nonprofits and charties, which Bowers said is illegal. Brantley mostly agreed with him, saying donations that don't bring a substantial benefit to the county appear to run afoul of the Georgia Constitution's ban on gratuities.
  • The county is putting out for bid a contract to remove, install and repair vehicle radio equipment, undoing a $2.4 million a year deal with Mobile Communications that was awarded without allowing competing proposals. The Bowers/Hyde report said other companies could have done the same work for less money. (Bowers contends the savings to the county will cover the $850,000 cost of his investigation and report.)
  • May has mostly done away with P-cards, suspending nearly 200 cards in June on the advice of the investigators. As of Aug. 31, 58 purchasing cards were still in use for emergencies, motor vehicle repairs and court expenses.
  • In the coming months, DeKalb plans to post financial transactions by commissioners and departments on an online register for all to see.
  • The Sanitation department fired trash collector Sidarius Johnson, who was arrested for DUI while driving a government pickup, then rehired months later. Johnson was fired for failing to disclose the DUI when he reapplied for the job, even though his supervisors knew about it. His dismissal set off a chain of events that led to a three-week suspension for Sanitation Director Billy Malone, who was in several accidents in county vehicles but didn't follow proper protocol in reporting them, according to an internal memo.
  • District Attorney Robert James is reimbursing the county more than $1,400 that he spent on meals and a parking ticket, after the Bowers/Hyde report questioned several of his food expenses and Channel 2 Action News drilled even deeper. James exceeded his daily allowance for food 30 times since 2011, and he will repay the difference in each case, according to Channel 2.
  • DeKalb Solicitor-General Sherry Boston has reimbursed the county $175 that she spent on a portrait used for brochures, advertising and her official website. The Bowers/Hyde report listed the charge as being for "airbrush makeup."
  • The Georgia General Assembly may consider changing DeKalb’s CEO form of government next year, a plan that Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed amid the fallout from the report.