In a damning report issued by a special grand jury three years ago, suspicions of corruption in DeKalb’s County government ran deep.
A yearlong probe had uncovered possible cronyism, shakedowns and irregular spending from the top of the personnel chain to the bottom. Jury members pointed out instances of county employees steering government business to family members and friends; companies overbilling the county; and, in one case, DeKalb awarding a tree-trimming contract to a man who didn’t even own a chainsaw.
When District Attorney Robert James successfully prosecuted DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis on attempted extortion and perjury charges, some in the county thought more charges against others would follow. But the Ellis case may have been the last of prosecutions as a result of the special grand jury’s January 2013 report.
James told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s completed a review of the grand jury’s findings, and not enough evidence exists to bring charges against nine people highlighted in the report. He declined to discuss three others named in the report.
While the special grand jury uncovered serious concerns about inappropriate behavior, the conduct wasn’t necessarily criminal, the district attorney said.
“We don’t make decisions based on what things look like,” James said. “We make decisions based on facts and evidence.”
In the end, the investigation proved instructive, he said.
“People may not have seen all of the incarceration or blood that they wanted, but that wasn’t the reason we started it,” James said of the special grand jury process. “We started it as a quest for the truth. And then, after we discovered what we believed to be the truth, there were recommendations made about how to fix things.”
Many of those recommendations have been acted on — the Board of Ethics was revamped; an independent auditor will be hired; and a new procurement policy is in place, providing safeguards that didn’t exist when the special grand jury launched its inquiry, James said. None of the dozen people singled out by the special grand jury still works for or does business with the county.
James’ critics are quick to question his assessment and frankly say that he’s not doing his job.
“You have this district attorney saying all this smoke is here, but I want to reassure you there is no fire. The public doesn’t believe that for one moment,” said Viola Davis, who runs the Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter group. “That’s a miscarriage of justice.”
But James said he has relentlessly pursued public corruption cases against Ellis, former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis, teachers involved in a cheating scandal and about three dozen others since he was elected in 2010.
The special grand jury’s investigation started with an examination of spending for $1.35 billion in water and sewer improvements, but it later expanded to the highest levels of county government, including scrutinizing Ellis and his predecessor, former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones.
“There’s just no evidence we could find anywhere that Vernon Jones was actually in a conspiracy with anybody,” said Cynthia Hill, a senior assistant district attorney. “Certainly, the appearance of impropriety is what bothered the grand jurors, but when we started delving in … you don’t see a theft. You don’t see money being routed back to any individual, any campaign. It just wasn’t there.”
Jones, who is running for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
Grand jurors recommended that the district attorney look into possible bid rigging and theft that allegedly took place when Jones was in office. They say contracts were awarded to businesses with close ties to DeKalb employees.
In a case from Jones’ tenure, the special grand jury raised questions about possible conflicts of interest involving Hadi Haeri, who worked for the county to line up subcontractors on a $20 million manhole cover mapping contract while also being paid by one of the subcontractors. Haeri’s sister-in-law was Nadine Maghsoudlou, a deputy watershed director, who had influence over bids for county contracts, according to the special grand jury’s report.
Haeri’s attorney said his client did nothing wrong and performed the work he was hired for.
“This was nothing more than a political witch hunt, which ultimately involved my client getting scorched,” said attorney Yasha Heidari. “If you have this allegation hanging over your head, no one wants to employ you. It’s ruined his life.”
The district attorney’s office also found no evidence of criminal activity involving Haeri and Maghsoudlou. Maghsoudlou’s attorney didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
Even if the grand jury’s report results in no further criminal prosecutions, it was valuable because it exposed problems in DeKalb’s government, one of the jurors said.
“We saw and heard quite a few things that didn’t seem right,” said Catherine Scheffer, a member of the special grand jury. “The work we did has produced quite a few changes in DeKalb County we should be proud of.”
The panel was thorough in its examination, hearing testimony from 89 witnesses. Prosecutors reviewed bank records, bid score sheets, contracting documents and more to try to follow the money and establish whether criminal behavior occurred, Hill said.
Other cases cited by the grand jury often involved the connections between family members and friends who worked on business deals between DeKalb’s government and companies.
For example, former Deputy Director of Watershed Management John Walker was a close friend and fraternity brother of Jones. Walker’s twin brother, Jeffrey, worked as a “business development consultant” for several contractors that won county work, the grand jury report said. John Walker died in 2007. His brother couldn’t be reached for comment.
The work of the special grand jury contributed to the overhaul of the DeKalb Board of Ethics and the hiring of the county’s first ethics officer.
Now that the Board of Ethics if fully functioning, it could handle cases that don’t always rise to the level of criminality, such as cases where there’s an appearance of impropriety, said DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman. That board can issue fines and reprimands.
“We’re going to be able to put in place an education system to prevent issues such as conflict of interest and improprieties from happening in the future,” she said. “People will understand and have expectations of what the rules are.”