DeKalb prosecutors revisit corruption claims

The way District Attorney Robert James sees it, the conviction of DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis was a step in the right direction, but the cleanup of DeKalb County is far from over.

James has ordered another review of a special purpose grand jury’s report that two years ago recommended criminal investigations of 11 government officials and contractors.

Whether there’s enough evidence to prosecute them remains to be seen. None has been charged so far. James is juggling a barrage of tips and complaints about other government misbehavior.

“Nobody is over here taking a victory lap because we got a conviction in the Ellis case,” James said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re doing everything we can, as aggressively as we can, as fast as we can.”

James said those who believe he hasn’t done enough to purge the government of wrongdoing need to understand a few things. His office has been stretched thin by the yearlong special grand jury investigation, the trial and retrial of Ellis, and the school construction contracting scandal that resulted in a plea by former Superintendent Crawford Lewis and guilty verdicts against two others.

James said his office is hamstrung by the DeKalb Commission, which wouldn’t allot his requested $208,000 to begin hiring four employees in his short-staffed Public Integrity Unit.

Over the past few years, four attorneys and three investigators in the Public Integrity Unit have dedicated all of their time to government crimes in the county, including high-level cases as well as officer-involved shootings and crimes by educators, James said. He acknowledges they haven’t had time to take a hard look into many other cases.

“We just don’t have what we need. I am literally drowning in public integrity complaints in this county,” James said. “I’m stuck between impossible choices here based on the resources I have. I don’t have the FBI at my disposal.”

The special purpose grand jury heard testimony and reviewed evidence throughout 2012 before issuing an 81-page report that included allegations of theft, bid rigging, obstruction and perjury by government employees.

Ellis was one of those cited. A jury found him guilty last month of perjury and attempting to extort campaign contributions from a contractor, and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon said the Ellis case distracted James and the grand jury from their investigation of the Department of Watershed Management. She said she supports a law enforcement task force and an internal auditor to uproot wrongdoing.

“I’m sure he is doing the best he can,” Gannon said of James. “Sometimes his focus may be a little hard to figure out, but that’s easy for someone on the outside to say.”

Commissioner Nancy Jester said her fellow commissioners shouldn’t have withheld funding from James or from outside special investigators who were seeking $500,000. The investigators, former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde called DeKalb’s government “rotten to the core” in a report last week.

“I think that was a mistake. It degrades the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to clean itself up,” Jester said. “I don’t think we are at the end of what Mr. James and other prosecutors can do to help right the ship in DeKalb.”

James said if he had enough evidence against those named by the special grand jury report, he would have already charged them with crimes.

Instead, his staff is going through old documents and interviews to determine if a case can be made.

In some instances, the trail may have gone cold. In others, conduct may have been unethical but not criminal, or the statute of limitations may have expired.

“The misconception here on the part of a lot of folks is that the district attorney is sitting on a mountain of evidence, and all these people are just horrible career criminals and they’ve got to be prosecuted right away,” James said. “That’s not true. … Just because someone’s name was in there doesn’t mean that they’re automatically a criminal.”

The foreman of the special grand jury, Albert Trujillo, said James should take one corruption case at a time.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but this (conviction of Ellis) is one hell of a shot across the bow,” Trujillo said. “I hope we continue to be vigilant and watch the rest of these guys because corruption was up and down the line. It was incredible.”

Prosecutions of DeKalb officials

Cases handled by DeKalb District Attorney Robert James

  • DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis was found guilty of attempted extortion and perjury as a result of accusations that he pressured county contractors to give him campaign contributions.
  • Former schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction 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.
  • Bob Lundsten, the former chief of staff for Commissioner Elaine Boyer, was indicted in April on charges he abused his county purchasing card. His case is pending.
  • Three DeKalb educators were charged in April 2013 on charges they manipulated school records in an effort to improve standardized test results. Two former principals pleaded guilty, and the case against an assistant principal is pending.
  • Former Miller Grove High paraprofessional Daphne Murphy pleaded guilty to siphoning more than $13,000 from funds supporting cheerleaders and the senior class.
  • Former Stephenson High bookkeeper Shirlene Benton pleaded guilty in November 2011 to theft of more than $12,000.
  • Dameco Moss, a former DeKalb grease inspector, pleaded guilty in May 2011 to bribery and theft for shaking down payments from restaurant owners.

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 $93,000.
  • Boyer's husband, John Boyer, pleaded guilty in February to helping arrange the couple's scheme.
  • Jerry Clark, a former member of the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals, pleaded guilty in February to taking a bribe for his vote.
  • Ismail Sirdah, a pool hall owner, pleaded guilty this month to bribing Clark for his vote on a nightclub permit.
  • 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.

Special grand jury recommendations

  • Indict CEO Burrell Ellis. Status: Ellis was convicted of four felonies last month.
  • Investigate 11 other former government officials and vendors for criminal wrongdoing. Status: DeKalb district attorney's office is reviewing these cases.
  • Eliminate DeKalb County's powerful CEO position. Status: No action taken.
  • Hire an independent internal auditor: Status: The Georgia Legislature approved an independent auditor for DeKalb. The position hasn't been filled yet.
  • Reorganize purchasing and contracting. Status: New purchasing policies implemented and department personnel reorganized.
  • Eliminate the director of public safety position appointed by the CEO. Status: No action taken.
  • Outsource county IT department: No action taken.

Source: Special Purpose Grand Jury report

Who’s who

The employees, elected officials and key players whom a DeKalb special purpose grand jury recommended for further investigation:

  • Suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis
  • Former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones
  • Former Public Safety Director William 'Wiz' Miller
  • Former Chief of Staff Jabari Simama
  • Former Ellis campaign manager Kevin Ross
  • Former Department of Watershed Management Deputy Director Nadine Maghsoudlou
  • Former Department of Watershed Management Associate Director Roy Barnes
  • Former Department of Watershed Management contract employee Hadi Haeri, a sister-in-law of Maghsoudlou
  • Paul Champion, a landscaping contractor
  • Jeffrey Walker, a former employee for Metals and Materials Engineering, a county contractor
  • Christian Vann, a former Cartoon Network employee who won a $2.2 million annual contract for tree trimming
  • John Willis and possibly other individuals with Brown & Caldwell, a county contractor