Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May denounced a report on DeKalb corruption at a news conference Wednesday afternoon Sept. 30, 2015. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Hope, derision greet corruption report

The findings of a report on DeKalb government corruption left the county right where it was before: at the mercy of ongoing criminal investigations.

Several residents and elected officials said they hope prosecutors use the report as a launching pad for more indictments.

Others, including Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, said the report he commissioned from former Attorney General Mike Bowers and investigator Richard Hyde was a wasted effort that won’t do much to bring immediate changes to the county.

May blasted the results of the investigation, saying he expected more than a 40-page report that cost taxpayers an estimated $850,000. May denied the report’s allegation that he borrowed money from a subordinate in violation of the county’s charter.

“The content of this report is at best laughable, and at worst it’s pitiful,” May said. “I have no idea what he’s talking about where this (loan) is concerned.”

May said the report failed to live up to the investigators’ assertion that the county’s government was “rotten to the core.”

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, whose spending was also criticized by the investigators, said the report will damage the county rather than help restore it.

“It wreaks of a political witch hunt, and it’s filled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations,” she said. “It appears that it was written to expressly hurt the county.”

But some DeKalb citizens like Harmel Codi, a former county employee, said the report helps bring transparency to improper behavior, a necessary step toward restoration of public trust.

“This is just beyond criminal,” Codi said. “You have people in government that don’t shy away from putting their hand in public money just because they can.”

The investigators wrote that they will forward some their evidence to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Either District Attorney Robert James or the U.S. Attorney’s Office would be responsible for bringing criminal charges.

The investigators alleged that James himself had broken the law when he ignored their requests under Georgia’s Open Records Act for his charge card records. James said he didn’t respond because May had sent him a letter clarifying that the District Attorney’s Office wasn’t part of the scope of the investigation.

“It is an incorrect assertion that I violated the Open Records Act,” James said. “Ultimately we’re going to be looking to Mr. Bowers’ report to determine what, if anything here, is criminal. … I don’t have any evidence. Mr Bowers hasn’t shared any evidence with me.”

The report also detailed allegations of improper spending by county commissioners, including for meals, political consultants and contributions to charitable organizations.

Charles Peagler, a retired business owner who lives in South DeKalb, said he wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings because he already knew commissioners wasted taxpayer money.

“I’m really embarrassed that we have elected officials that have no more interest and love for this county than that,” Peagler said. “Over the years, they’ve had carte blanche to do what they want to do with my taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Several people called for the FBI and federal prosecutors to intervene.

David Howell, a resident who lives in the LaVista Hills area, said any investigation that depends on funding from DeKalb officials can be undermined. He hopes the U.S. Attorney’s Office will conduct an independent investigation and “clean house” in the county.

“It’s probably not beyond repair, but it’s beyond self-repair,” Howell said.

Federal corruption laws are stronger than state laws, and local prosecutors in Georgia have long turned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office when they uncover evidence of local corruption, said J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb district attorney.

“The bottom line is, if these allegations are correct, they should be investigated,” Morgan said. “The U.S. Attorney and the FBI, they have the laws to do it.”

Whether or not there’s any criminal wrongdoing, the investigation exposed the county’s lax controls over its spending of taxpayers’ money, said Commissioner Nancy Jester. New to the commission, Jester was not mentioned in the Bowers/Hyde report.

“I have zero confidence in any fiscal oversight at any level in DeKalb,” Jester said.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, another new commissioner who was not mentioned in the findings, said the report could have been more effective and less expensive if it had been conducted by external auditors instead.

“It was a lot of money for something that someone else could have done for a fraction of that cost,” she said. “I don’t see any major criminal conduct from glancing over it.”

A few changes to DeKalb’s government are already on the way.

The Georgia General Assembly approved legislation that will create a financial watchdog position in the county and remove political appointments of members to the county Board of Ethics.

Patricia Killingsworth, a former member of the Board of Ethics, said she was doing “a happy dance” after reading the investigative report. That’s because some of its recommendations are already being implemented.

“I’m thrilled that we got it right,” she said. “I really think there will be major changes and we’re heading in the right direction.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.