DeKalb County woes go far beyond Ellis

Jury’s verdict pending, but reforms hinge on more than CEO trial

A mechanical services company from Snellville made $85,000 off DeKalb County taxpayers last year — by doing the wrong work and handing in a suspicious bill.

An outside consultant urged county officials to dig deeper, warning that the bill included suspect fees and charges for materials that the company couldn’t back up with receipts.

The county’s reaction: Pay up. “This contractor is calling me everyday (sic) looking for his payment,” the then-head of purchasing and contracting wrote in an email.

Unacceptable decision? No, apparently business as usual for DeKalb. The purchasing official is reportedly under federal investigation, and the contractor faces a felony charge of theft by deception — yet another criminal case involving the county and yet another sign of a broken system.

Corruption in DeKalb allegedly reached to the top, with a jury now deciding the fate of its twice-elected leader, CEO Burrell Ellis. After five days of deliberating, the panel is still struggling to decide if Ellis broke the law when he spoke of drying up work of contractors who didn’t contribute to his re-election campaign.

He could go to prison, or resume leadership of one of the state’s largest counties, or remain in limbo if the jury is hung. Whatever happens, it won’t eliminate the culture of corruption detailed in the special grand jury report that led to Ellis’ indictment.

DeKalb’s dysfunction preceded his tenure and continued even after he was suspended in mid-2013. The question will be, do county leaders and local prosecutors have the will to keep digging? Can DeKalb be turned around?

The county’s culture has allowed employees, contractors and elected officials to get away with behavior that would have heads rolling in other organizations. The lack of accountability became an open door for abuse, which prosecutors say some used to extract tens of thousands to millions of dollars from public coffers.

The misconduct has been piling up for years.

A manager gets cited on his performance evaluation for rarely showing up at work or answering phone calls, yet is graded as meeting standards. Turns out he was working another full-time job on the county’s clock, and he’s now charged with taking bribes.

Three vendors hand $600 payments to the purchasing director, who passes the money along to Ellis’ assistant to ease her personal financial woes.

A police detective starts uncovering inflated invoices and apparently fraudulent payments to contractors, then gets shut down by superiors.

“The county just doesn’t seem to have standards on how to deal with all this,” said Dan Wright, a MARTA engineer serving on Blueprint DeKalb, a citizens’ panel started by Commissioner Kathie Gannon to propose reforms.

The special grand jury recommended criminal investigations of at least 11 people besides Ellis, including his campaign manager and his predecessor, former CEO Vernon Jones, which it suspected of theft and bid rigging. Another was the former public safety director, accused of smothering the detective’s probe into watershed contracts.

None of the 11 has been charged, though former Purchasing and Contracting Director Kelvin Walton — an admitted liar and a cooperating witness against Ellis — is under federal investigation, reportedly on allegations of receiving cash payments from a sewer contractor. Walton’s attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.

So far, DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James has poured all his energy into prosecuting Ellis.

“If the verdict is guilty, the district attorney definitely should go after people who also were involved in graft and corruption,” said Albert Trujillo, the foreman of the special grand jury. “Otherwise it would seem like there was a war against the guy at the top, and that was not the case.”

Fraud, bribery, theft

Accusations of illicit behavior by other DeKalb officials date back years, before Ellis took the CEO’s office in 2009.

Case in point: the former manager of custodial services, who is charged in federal court with bribery and 10 counts of mail fraud involving jobs he simultaneously held with DeKalb and Georgia World Congress Center.

Five years before the county caught on to Patrick Jackson’s two timing, a supervisor noted in his 2007 performance review that he was often difficult to locate.

“He comes to work space maybe on Tuesday for staff meeting,” the supervisor wrote. “His work ethic has been picked up by his staff — he does not come to work so why should they. The perception by other working staff is ‘What does he do to get paid a salary?’”

Yet he graded Jackson a 3 on a 5-point scale, or “meets standards,” documents reviewed by the AJC show.

Once the county discovered Jackson’s second job and he quit, it didn’t look deeper into contracts he may have influenced.

Georgia World Congress Center did. It called in investigators and terminated its contract with Alabama-based Rite Way Service.

Federal prosecutors last month accused Jackson of steering lucrative janitorial work to the company in exchange for a luxury apartment, furniture and utilities. The indictment says he served as a non-voting technical adviser on the DeKalb County committee that awarded a bid for janitorial services, and that he later beefed up the company’s compensation by ordering more services.

DeKalb continued using Rite Way until earlier this year, paying it millions of dollars in total. Rite Way is now under new ownership and no one from the company has been charged.

Jackson did not return calls from the AJC seeking comment.

Other cases continued into this year.

Ex-commissioner Elaine Boyer, who’s facing federal prison after the AJC exposed her for fleecing taxpayers, was still racking up personal airfare, rental car and cell phone charges on her county Visa card after Ellis’ suspension. No one questioned her frequent travel charges or her sporadic history of reimbursing some of the personal expenses.

The AJC’s investigation into commissioner spending raised more questions about internal controls.

Commissioner Stan Watson has paid thousands of dollars from his discretionary budget to county employees, letting them moonlight as his part-time consultants. The county’s personnel policy doesn’t appear to address such arrangements.

Watson would not discuss the payments with the AJC last week, saying his lawyer advised against it given an ongoing federal investigation into commissioners’ spending.

Joe Arrington, who lives near Stone Mountain and attends almost every county meeting, said no one is able to hold elected officials accountable.

“This is just pure Chicago-style politics, without the weapons and boxing gloves,” he said.

Lapses in oversight

Then there’s the $85,000 check to the Snellville company.

Moha Mechanical Services was hired to install a new HVAC system at the county animal shelter, but at least one county employee and two department directors raised alarms about the job, which they viewed as a waste of funds given that a new animal shelter is in the works.

Instead of installing new air-conditioning equipment at the animal shelter as the contract called for, Moha cleaned out and insulated the duct work already there, explaining that it was “in exceptional condition,” records obtained by the AJC show.

The county’s outside consultant on the project, Brown Design Group, urged officials to question more than $75,000 in charges on Moha’s $85,000 bill before paying. But six weeks later, Walton ordered a check be cut.

An auditor later noted the unapproved duct work in a January report. She also questioned why Moha was allowed to bid in the first place, since it wasn’t on the county’s list of on-call HVAC contractors. The auditor also found the company lacked the proper contractor’s license and said “we consider some of these payments to Moha questionable.”

That apparently didn’t warrant turning the matter over to law enforcement, though.

An arrest came about only because a sleuthing dog lover spent more than $100 of her own money making open records requests of the county, then took several binders of documents to the FBI’s local corruption unit.

In February, Moha official Paul Deochand was arrested on allegations of theft by deception.

“I was more mad at the county than I was at Paul Deochand,” said Caroline Charlton, who informed the feds. “Because it was only possible for him to do that because of the county.”

Deochand, who hasn’t been indicted, told the AJC he cannot talk about his case, and he would not discuss the work he did for the county.

The county’s chief operating officer, Zachary Williams, second in command to the interim CEO, said he wasn’t aware of the arrest until told by the AJC this month. He said when he ordered the audit, he was only trying to find out what happened to the money and didn’t see it as criminal activity.

“This shows whatever the process was for selection and oversight of the contract at that time was ineffective,” Williams said.

Williams, who’s been with DeKalb since early 2013, said he’s using the grand jury report as a “road map” to enact reforms. The purchasing and ethics policies have been rewritten, and the county has set up a whistleblower hotline to take anonymous employee complaints.

There’s been a house cleaning in the Department of Purchasing and Contracting, too — though Williams called it a “reorganization.”

The will to change?

An outside procurement expert was brought in to run the purchasing department after Walton was suspended in April. In the wake of investigations of lax county purchasing practices, employees working in the department were asked to reapply for their jobs. Nine workers wound up laid off.

“They did a reorganization because of alleged corruption,” one the employees who lost her job, Natascha Crenshaw, testified during the Ellis trial. “In my interview for a new job, I was asked, given the grand jury testimony and the indictments, ‘Why should I keep you?’”

John Ernst, chairman of the DeKalb Board of Ethics, said corruption takes root when there’s a dearth of oversight. For years, the board received minimal funding and had vacancies that went unfilled, leaving it unable to take action.

“It gets to a situation where people think they aren’t being monitored,” Ernst said. “If there’s monitoring, employees at least know there’s someone out there taking a hard look. They’ll think twice, and there’s a deterrence factor.”