DeKalb inquiry goes beyond criminal charges

Prosecutions of DeKalb officials

Cases handled by DeKalb District Attorney Robert James

  • DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis faces charges that he illegally pressured county contractors to give him campaign contributions. Status: A deadlocked jury resulted in a mistrial in October, and a retrial is scheduled to begin June 1.
  • Former schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors, and a jury found former DeKalb schools Chief Operating Officer Pat Reid and architect Tony Pope guilty in November 2013 for their involvement in a school construction scandal. Status: A judge will consider a motion for a new trial next month.
  • Bob Lundsten, the former chief of staff for Commissioner Elaine Boyer, was indicted last week on charges he abused his county purchasing card. Status: Lundsten's arraignment scheduled for next month.
  • Three DeKalb educators were charged in April 2013 on charges they manipulated school records in an effort to improve standardized test results. Status: Former Rock Chapel Elementary School Principal Angela Jennings pleaded guilty and received a $1,000 fine and five years probation. The cases against Cedar Grove Middle School Principal Agnes Flanagan and Stoneview Elementary School Assistant Principal Derrick Wooten are pending.
  • Former Miller Grove High paraprofessional Daphne Murphy was indicted in January on charges of siphoning more than $13,000 from funds supporting cheerleaders and the senior class. Status: Murphy was sentenced this month to serve 10 years of probation, pay restitution and perform 100 hours of community service.
  • Former Stephenson High bookkeeper Shirlene Benton pleaded guilty in November 2011 to theft of more than $12,000. Status: Benton was sentenced to serve six months in jail and pay restitution.
  • Dameco Moss, a former DeKalb grease inspector, pleaded guilty in May 2011 to bribery and theft for shaking down payments from restaurant owners. Status: Moss was sentenced to serve six months in jail and pay restitution.

Cases handled by the U.S. attorney’s office

  • Former DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer pleaded guilty in September to charges that she defrauded taxpayers of more than $100,000. Status: Boyer was sentenced last month to 14 months in federal prison.
  • Boyer's husband, John Boyer, pleaded guilty in February to helping arrange the couple's scheme. Status: His sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 19.
  • Jerry Clark, a former member of the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals, pleaded guilty in February to taking a bribe for his vote. Status: Clark's sentencing is scheduled for June 9.
  • Ismail Sirdah, a pool hall owner, pleaded guilty this month to bribing Clark for his vote on a nightclub permit. Status: Sirdah's sentencing is scheduled for June 15.
  • Former DeKalb Custodial Services Manager Patrick Jackson pleaded guilty this month to charges that he steered taxpayer money to a janitorial company that was bribing him. Status: Jackson's sentencing is scheduled for June 16.

Special investigators are scouring records, interviewing government employees and collecting evidence with a single-minded mission: rooting out corruption and incompetence in DeKalb County.

Worried that it may take more than criminal prosecutions to clean up the county, Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May brought in former state Attorney General Mike Bowers last month to oversee an inquiry.

May said a thorough examination of the county is essential to restoring trust in government.

“This is an absolute necessity for us in DeKalb County to be able to move forward,” May said. “I would have never imagined that we would have gone through such a long period of time with the issues we’ve had, both criminally, ethically and in terms of inefficiencies.”

Several individuals — most notably, suspended CEO Burrell Ellis and ex-Commissioner Elaine Boyer — have been charged with crimes over the past few years, but the ongoing investigations of county and federal prosecutors have no timeline or end in sight.

The investigation by Bowers and Richard Hyde, a hard-nosed former cop with a long history of uncovering wrongdoing, is expected to move more quickly. Both Bowers and Hyde previously worked on the state investigation of cheating in Atlanta Public Schools that led to convictions or guilty pleas from 32 former educators.

Underlying their investigation is the belief, held by some residents and elected officials, that DeKalb District Attorney Robert James, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office haven’t done enough to rid the county of dirty politicians.

In 2013, a special grand jury recommended that the district attorney’s office investigate 11 people besides Ellis, but it’s unclear what actions has been taken in that regard.

“What does is say about DeKalb’s ability to govern that we have to bring in Bowers and his crew?” asked Sally Sears, the co-chairwoman of a citizen advisory committee for the county’s $1.35 billion water and sewer upgrade project. “I’m not trying to second-guess James or the U.S. attorney, but how long does it take to investigate? I’m really hoping we’ll see some results.”

James said his office has been aggressive in pursuing high-profile cases against Ellis and school Superintendent Crawford Lewis. Boyer’s chief of staff, Bob Lundsten, was indicted last week for alleged spending abuses. The district attorney’s office also has handled several less-publicized public corruption prosecutions.

James said he couldn’t comment about any continuing investigations of other government officials.

The district attorney’s public integrity unit could have done much of the same work as Bowers and Hyde, James said.

“I understand Mr. Bowers is doing what he’s doing,” he said. “But I want people to be clear that, if I’m asked, I’ll do my job. But even if I’m not asked, and I see something that’s not right, I’ll still do my job. ”

The county is paying Bowers $400 an hour and Hyde $300 an hour.

“People watch ‘CSI’ and ‘Criminal Minds,’ and they expect that complex crimes get solved in a 30-minute or hour-long episode. But the reality is that this is hard work, and sometimes it takes a year or more to resolve those things,” James said.

But Allen Moye, a retired federal prosecutor and DeKalb resident, faulted James for pursuing Ellis but not county employees or county contractors. Ellis, whose first trial ended with a hung jury in October, faces a June 1 retrial on charges that he pressured county contractors into giving him campaign contributions.

“There’s an awfully lot of corruption in DeKalb County that he seems to have ignored,” Moye said. “I’m concerned that we have all these folks identified years ago by a lengthy grand jury investigation, and we’ve seen one indictment, but that’s it.”

The inquiry led by Bowers and Hyde will have more freedom to reveal problems in DeKalb than prosecutors, whose work only becomes public when someone gets indicted.

Armed with access badges to government buildings and an executive order from May, the special investigators will have full access to county records and employees. When they finish their inquiry, they’ll release a report without prior review by the county.

If they uncover evidence of criminal behavior, Bowers has said his team will report it to the proper authorities, who would then have the ability to bring charges and make arrests. After James voiced concerns that the special investigation could taint future prosecutions, May revised the parameters of the investigation this month to make clear that government employees may exercise their rights to remain silent if Bowers and Hyde seek to question them.

Bowers said there’s no conflict between his work and potential criminal investigations. He declined to comment on his progress so far.

The foreman of the special grand jury, Albert Trujillo, said he’s disappointed more action wasn’t taken after he and other grand jury members heard repeated allegations of cronyism, bid-rigging and fraud during their year-long term.

“I hope that we can do something about it, but I don’t know. The Watershed Department just appeared to be fraught with problems,” Trujillo said. “There was a tremendous waste of taxpayer money.”

Commissioner Nancy Jester said the sooner the investigations shine light on corruption, the faster the county can begin the slow process of rebuilding public confidence.

“There’s this great sense that there’s probably more to come. What’s going to come next?” Jester said. “That limbo and uncertainty and that cloud that’s out there is just really hurting DeKalb County in so many ways.”