FBI probe involves repairs to DeKalb official’s home

Coming Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The AJC follows the money trail in the latest DeKalb corruption probe.

The latest FBI investigation in DeKalb County involves repairs made to the home of interim CEO Lee May, after a sewer line backup in late 2010 spilled raw sewage into his living room.

May, at the time a county commissioner, didn’t go through the same process of filing a claim, negotiation and scrutiny that other homeowners do when sewer system clogs damage their property. Instead, he got special treatment, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News has found.

And minutes after Alpharetta-based Water Removal Services emailed the repair bill to the county, former DeKalb Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton had staffers working on the payment. The next day, the county issued a $6,500 check to cover all repair costs, with no questions asked.

Current and former owners of the company and the ex-employee who arranged for the repairs all told the AJC they have been interviewed by the FBI. Questions surround county officials’ relationship with the ex-employee, the company’s subsequent winning of a county contract and a $4,000 check the company wrote to May, but which May says he didn’t receive.

An FBI spokesman declined comment.

May said he thought that since the damages were the county’s fault, he shouldn’t have to pay anything. His wife sold the house, on Kilkenny Circle in Lithonia, in a short sale later that year.

“I didn’t ask for any special treatment, nor was I aware that I received any special treatment,” said May, who has led efforts to clean up DeKalb’s culture of corruption. “If I did, that’s not something that’s acceptable to me.”

He chalked it up to his own naivety at a time in DeKalb when things were done “loosey-goosey at best, not following protocol.”

“If there’s an analysis that says that I owe some money, absolutely I would pay it,” he said. “I don’t know that to be the case right now.”

For his part, Walton, who testified against suspended CEO Burrell Ellis in his corruption trial last year and then resigned his position with the county, said he didn’t know homeowners affected by sewer backups were supposed to go through a claims process. Those issues were handled by the Watershed Management Department, he explained.

But he said the county had a special way of handling issues involving commissioners.

“Anything with the commissioners’ name on it, or with the CEO’s name on it … those departments move,” Walton said. “They make it happen, because they don’t want no commissioner calling them, they don’t want their boss on them, about a little small invoice of about $6,000.”

The request otherwise didn’t seem unusual, Walton said.

“Now, had we not heard that Lee May’s house was flooded, maybe that would have been a red flag,” he said.

Bureaucracy bypassed

When DeKalb Watershed’s system problems cause homes to flood with raw sewage, the county sends a crew to clean up the mess and rip out any contaminated carpets, flooring, baseboards or sheet rock. The county pays for the emergency work, but repairing the damage is another matter.

Most sewer customers must file a claim, get at least two estimates for repairs, haggle over a settlement, then obtain four layers of approval from county officials before the county will send them a check. The homeowner, then, pays the contractor. The whole process usually takes at least a month.

It’s rare now for homeowners to get paid for all the damages. DeKalb has no formal written policy on how to handle claims, but the current practice has property owners typically paying roughly 30 percent of the repair work out of pocket, according to Brian Robinson, who fields claims for the county’s Watershed Management Department. The county usually agrees to pay for all the labor and half of the materials, he said.

Before Robinson was on the job, a review of sewer damage claims filed around the time of May’s mishap shows homeowners being compensated erratically. The files do not contain detailed notes of negotiations, but in several cases they show the county and homeowners haggled over the value of lost items, such as furniture and appliances.

In about half of the 39 cases reviewed in 2010 and 2011, involving claims of more than $1,000, the county appears to have given homeowners the compensation they asked for. With some other claims, the county paid much less.

The repairs at May’s former home aren’t in the county files, though, because May didn’t go through that process.

After water department crews unclogged the sewer line and the county’s emergency contractor cleaned up the raw sewage, May was left with ruined floors and baseboards in his living room and a downstairs bathroom. He turned to a friend, former homebuilder Doug Cotter, who was working for Water Removal Services at the time but later parted ways. Cotter asked his boss to send a work crew to May’s home.

Craig Joyner had a far different experience with DeKalb County after a sewer main blockage caused human waste to flow over the flooring of the first floor of his Stone Mountain home in January 2011. County records show he submitted two repair estimates to the county, one for $21,970, another for $16,901, and a list of damaged electronics, furniture and other items totaling $7,600.

The county would only agree to give him $10,000.

Joyner said he was already financially upside down in the house, fighting a foreclosure, and he didn’t have the money to pay the difference in repair costs. It killed any chance he had of keeping the house, he said, so he used the money to move and walked away, destroying his credit for years afterward.

Told how the interim CEO got his sewer damages fixed, Joyner said he wishes he had taken the county to court.

“They didn’t do anything like that for me,” he said. “They basically ran me out of the house.”