Fishy document let DeKalb official bid on county contract

An invalid, possibly forged, legal document paved the way for a DeKalb official to win a million-dollar county contract, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News has found.

It’s not clear whose fingerprints were on it, but who benefited is clear: Vaughn Irons, chairman of the DeKalb County Development Authority and CEO and founder of Atlanta-based APD Solutions.

The document made Irons’ company an eligible bidder after he previously had been shut out for having a conflict of interest. No one seems to know, or will say, who, specifically, delivered it to the county’s Purchasing and Contracting Department. County spokesman Burke Brennan said, “We believe that it came from the vendor.”

Irons denies that, saying he’s never possessed a copy and doesn’t know how it wound up in county files. “Whoever was involved in that was not someone from APD Solutions,” he said.

Wherever the document came from, after it showed up, everything seemed to go Irons’ way.

His company ranked fourth in a bid process that picked two winners to rehab foreclosed homes through the federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Yet APD still got a contract. That's because the county changed course and gave awards to the top four bidders, citing a federal deadline to spend the money. Then APD became the only contract winner to get an extra allotment of money — bringing its contract total to $1.5 million — without having to go through another bid process.

And when his contract went in front of the DeKalb County Commission, Commissioner Stan Watson was among those voting to approve it, despite being on APD’s payroll as a consultant — a violation of county ethics rules.

Watson didn't disclose his relationship with the company before the commission's first unanimous vote to approve the contract, nor before the second vote, nine months later, to award an additional $500,000.

Watson, in a brief exchange with reporters after a community breakfast meeting in south DeKalb early this month, apologized for his votes on the awards.

“I don’t remember doing that,” Watson said. “If I did, that was a mistake and inadvertent.”

Watson declined to discuss the issue in depth, cutting off the interview. He did not respond to later requests to talk about his dealings with Irons’ company.

Irons said he hasn’t done anything wrong. “I don’t think Mr. Watson has done anything wrong,” he added. The votes on his contract would have turned out the same way, he said, whether Watson voted or not.

Mystery document

Irons had been trying to get a piece of the NSP grant for his company since 2009. But when he first sought to bid, Assistant County Attorney Terri Gordon wrote an opinion saying Irons couldn’t be a member of the government and a government contractor, too, since the ethics code forbids that.

Irons then sought a ruling from the county’s Ethics Board, the final decision-maker on such matters. At the time, the board was in disarray, struggling to reach a quorum to hold quarterly meetings. It took almost a year for Irons’ case to go before the board, then some members had questions and concerns.

No records show they ever took a vote. Five of the six members on the board at the time said they did not recall settling the matter. (The sixth member, Thelma Grier, would not discuss her recollections and didn’t respond to an open records request for any documents she had related to the issue.)

In 2011, Irons tried again for an NSP contract and again was told he couldn't be a contender, this time in writing by former Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton.

Then a few weeks later, a legal opinion showed up in the purchasing department, stating that the Ethics Board ruled Irons could be both a contractor and a Development Authority board member, after all.

Several discrepancies point to the opinion being invalid.

It was never filed in the county clerk’s office, as other ethics board opinions were.

It bears the title “Advisory Opinion Number 15,” with the number 15 handwritten above a blank line. Another opinion 15 was filed in the clerk’s office more than a year later, concerning an unrelated matter about former Commissioner Elaine Boyer.

“That sounds, on it’s face, as if it’s counterfeit,” County Commissioner Jeff Rader said. “That’s like a $100 bill, with Benjamin Franklin upside down.”

It also bears the signature of the board’s chairman at the time, Bryan Smith. While he said the signature appears to be his, Smith doesn’t recall signing the document and said he wasn’t in the habit of pre-signing opinions the board hadn’t approved. Smith said he wouldn’t rule out forgery.

“Regardless, this wouldn’t be considered valid,” Smith said of the opinion.

Former Ethics Board lawyer Stephen Irving said he wrote the document as a draft, intended as a possible position for the board to consider. Had the board agreed, Irving said, he would have written a new document, with the opinion number typed on the front page.

“Something’s bad wrong here,” Irving said. “Somebody’s misused my work product.”

He also said it doesn’t make sense for Smith to have signed it. “It makes some hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Irving said, “because it’s an easy signature to forge.”

Walton, the former Purchasing director, recalled finding the ethics opinion on his desk. How it got there is a mystery. It could have been mailed or hand delivered, Walton said, and an office worker could have put it on his desk. It has a date stamp at the top, but Walton said that’s not his former department’s official stamp.

He said he didn’t doubt its veracity at the time, though, because it bore Smith’s signature. “If I thought anything was suspicious, I would have picked up the phone and called this Bryan Smith guy,” Walton said.

Former ethics board member Isaac Blythers said given the corruption scandals brewing in DeKalb at the time, he’s not surprised if someone faked a document. “If the Ethics Board was circumvented, somebody wanted the results that they got,” Blythers said.

Former federal prosecutor B.J. Pak, a criminal defense attorney for Ballard Spahr, said if someone knowingly used a fake document to reap profits off a government, they could face federal fraud charges.

Irons told the AJC he knew there had been an initial hangup with the Ethics Board but he assumed it ultimately had issued an opinion in his favor.

He had attended a board session in August 2010 and assumed from the tone of the meeting and from conversations with Irving that the board would rule in his favor. But later, when Purchasing told his company that it hadn’t received an Ethics opinion, Irons said he called Smith to seek an explanation. Smith said he would check into it, Irons recalled. A few weeks later, Irons said, the county notified APD Solutions that it was eligible to bid.

“I want to make it very clear. I have in no way been involved in authoring, transferring, dealing with, influencing this opinion,” Irons said.

Smith told the AJC and Channel 2 he recalls hearing from Irons about the unresolved opinion, but he couldn’t help him. “I remember feeling bad that we couldn’t hear the matter because we couldn’t get a quorum, and so that kind of delayed and delayed and delayed,” Smith said.

DeKalb County wound up paying $972,000 to APD to buy, rehab and sell six houses in a new neighborhood off Pleasant Hill Road, whose development had stalled during the housing bust. The company was entitled to a 10 percent cut of the money as profit, or roughly $100,000.

Allen Mitchell, an assistant director in the county’s Human and Community Development Department, said the additional $500,000 award, intended for a project in another neighborhood, never came to fruition. He said the county planned to give that money to APD because it was the only company to bring the county a new housing rehab proposal.

Watson’s conflict

The AJC and Channel 2 found no evidence linking Watson to the questionable ethics opinion. But when the commission voted to hand APD the extra $500,000, Watson seconded the motion.

He also took part in the commission’s first vote to award APD a contract. That vote came about three months after Watson appeared on APD’s behalf before the Birmingham, Ala., City Council, saying he worked for the company.

Irons said that he had the commissioner on retainer from 2012 to 2014, at a rate of $500 per month, for “strategic advice for projects that we take on outside of the state of Georgia.”

In his brief conversation with reporters, Watson said he has not used his office to benefit APD Solutions. Documents uncovered in the investigation, though, show otherwise.

Particularly, he has assisted with Irons' controversial Panola Slope development, envisioned as an adult-oriented resort off Covington Highway, with a "barcade" of up to 425 gaming machines. Months before the project went before the commission, Watson's county emails show he and Irons collaborated on a proposed county ordinance regulating coin-operated amusement machines.

And DeKalb County’s public safety director, Cedric Alexander, says Watson met with him about Panola Slope a few months before the vote on a needed zoning change. Watson wanted him to support the project, but he didn’t say anything about gaming machines, Alexander said.

Watson also paid a visit in August to the Georgia Lottery Corporation, asking questions about state law pertaining to the machines, according to Joseph Kim, a lottery attorney. Watson was accompanied by state Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Decatur, an attorney who has represented both APD and Watson.

Stephenson did not return calls seeking comment.

Irons said he didn’t pay Watson for any work involving Panola Slope.

When the commission voted in November on the resort’s zoning request, Watson publicly recused himself, giving no explanation.

The county ordinance on gaming machines that Watson and Irons worked on together hasn't been introduced for a commission vote.

Panola Slope initially gained approval through a special land use permit and a zoning change. Last month, after the AJC and Channel 2 revealed the project’s scope and connection to a Louisiana casino, the commission rescinded its vote, citing a technicality.

Joel Edwards, a member of the watchdog group Restore DeKalb, said Watson’s helping hand to APD Solutions warrants another ethics complaint. The commissioner currently has a complaint pending against him for charging taxpayers nearly $5,000 for personal cellphone bills over the last three years.

“I think he’s crossing the line for his own personal benefit,” Edwards said. “It’s all in the name of money.”

Timeline: How Vaughn Irons’ company became a DeKalb County contractor

Oct. 30, 2009 - Vaughn Irons requests a legal opinion from the DeKalb County Board of Ethics, after being told by the county attorney that he can’t be on the Development Authority board and be a government contractor, too. His company, APD Solutions, sought a housing revitalization contract through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Aug. 11, 2010 - Ethics Board minutes show a discussion of penning a letter admonishing the county attorney for interfering in an ethics matter. Minutes also show the Irons decision is tabled.

Sept. 15, 2010 - Ethics Board minutes show no Irons opinion was rendered after two board members raised questions. They ask for additional information at the next scheduled meeting, but no records show the matter ever coming back up.

Oct. 24, 2011 - APD Solutions submits another bid for an NSP contract.

Nov. 30, 2011 - A letter to Irons from then-Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton shows Irons is still deemed an ineligible bidder.

Dec. 1, 2011 - Irons is still deemed an ineligible bidder by the purchasing department, according to meeting minutes of the bid selection committee.

Dec. 16, 2011 - The invalid Ethics Board advisory opinion shows up in the purchasing department, according to a date stamp on the top page. No one is sure who delivered it, how it arrived or who initially received it.

April 10, 2012 - The DeKalb County Commission votes to award APD Solutions a $1 million contract to rehab foreclosed homes. Stan Watson casts a vote, despite receiving $500 per month from APD for consulting services.

New development: DA’s office probing

The DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office has asked the county government to turn over all documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News in their research on APD Solutions. DA Robert James said he learned of the team’s findings as reporters interviewed more than a dozen current and former employees and officials.

Interim CEO Lee May said he supports an official probe.

“You all are laying out just the appearance of impropriety, and we want to make sure that we fully know and understand what transpired in the past,” May said Thursday.