Investigators find ‘stunning’ misconduct in DeKalb

Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May (left) and former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, who is leading a probe into corruption in the county. Jonathan Phillips/Special

Credit: Jonathan Phillips/Special

Credit: Jonathan Phillips/Special

Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May (left) and former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, who is leading a probe into corruption in the county. Jonathan Phillips/Special

Special investigators hired to root out corruption in DeKalb say the county is “rotten to the core,” with employees allegedly taking bribes, driving drunk and spending public money on themselves.

In a letter delivered Wednesday to Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, the investigators outlined troubling behavior by county workers and accuse them of spending taxpayer dollars on everything from a cruise to the Bahamas to peanut-butter-filled pretzels.

“What we have found is stunning,” wrote former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde. “The misconduct starts at the top and has infected nearly every department we have looked at.”

The investigators didn’t identify individuals who may be guilty of crimes or misconduct, saying they will do so when they publish their final report.

May, who hired the special investigators, rejected their assertion that the county is rotten, saying he believes most government employees are honest. The investigation was scheduled to last at least four months, from late March to Aug. 1.

“We were aware of the underlying issues mentioned in Mr. Bowers’ letter. That is why we hired him,” May said. “The 120 days has come and gone, and it appears the only thing we have to show for it is a two-page letter full of salacious — but vague – innuendo,” May said in a statement.

May said Bowers will provide a detailed report in three weeks with a plan to reduce the county’s risk for waste and fraud. Bowers declined to comment Wednesday.

The allegations of widespread corruption follows years of scandal in DeKalb, Georgia’s fourth-largest county with 722,000 people.

Suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis was found guilty last month of attempted extortion and perjury; former Commissioner Elaine Boyer pleaded guilty last year to bilking taxpayers of more than $93,000; and former DeKalb construction chief Pat Reid and her architect ex-husband, Tony Pope, were convicted in 2013 of racketeering for manipulating school construction contracts.

The special investigators listed many examples of misconduct:

  • Taxpayer-funded charge cards were used for liquor, candy, flower arrangements, a Christmas tree, to hire a guitar player and to pay the dry-cleaning bill for a judge's robe.
  • Some departments ignored requests for records under the Georgia Open Records Act.
  • The county paid to recover a vehicle impounded after a government employee was arrested for DUI. The employee resigned rather than face disciplinary action and was then rehired days after pleading guilty.
  • County property was stolen.

The letter also said that a major county department, which wasn’t identified, appears to be involved in a bribery scheme. No details were given.

“All of them need to go to jail as far as I’m concerned,” said Joel Edwards, a member of Restore DeKalb, a government watchdog group. “Whatever it takes to clean this county up, to clean this corruption up, that’s what we need.”

The special investigators have been conducting their inquiry since March, joining several other agencies looking into the county: the DeKalb District Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the DeKalb Board of Ethics.

District Attorney Robert James said he read the special investigators’ letter, but he couldn’t discuss his ongoing investigations.

The investigators have billed the county $455,746 for work performed in March, April and May, according to invoices obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through a Georgia Open Records Act request. Attorneys on the special investigation team are charging the county $400 per hour, and investigators cost $300 an hour.

May requested that $500,000 of the county’s budget go to paying for the investigation, but the county commission withheld that appropriation. The investigation has continued to move forward, and investigators have been paid from other government funds.

Some commissioners said the county needs to move on from years of investigations.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said she’s never seen the purpose of the investigation since law enforcement agencies are already doing the same thing.

“If any of those things are found to be true, of course I would be alarmed, no question about it,” she said. “I need to see what we’re getting for the money we’ve already been charged.”

Commissioner Nancy Jester said the investigation should continue because DeKalb has to be cleaned up.

“DeKalb County, one of the largest counties in the state and a major part of the metro area, cannot be allowed to exist in perpetuity in this state of corruption,” Jester said. “There’s too much at stake here.”