$4K payment at issue in latest DeKalb probe

Soon after DeKalb County paid for repairs at Commissioner Lee May’s home, the man who arranged the work says he was tapped to help May with his personal financial troubles.

May was swimming in debt and in the midst of bankruptcy. Doug Cotter said the County Commission’s chief of staff, Morris Williams, asked him for a favor. Could he help a commissioner out?

So Cotter says he handed over $4,000 to Williams.

Five months later, Cotter, working on behalf of Water Removal Services, won a $300,000 contract to clean up floods and sewage back-flows in residences and businesses throughout the county. Cotter parted ways with the company and took the contract with him.

Those findings, from an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, raise more questions about coziness among top DeKalb officials and those vying for county work, and whether those relationships may have crossed into illegal dealings.

May, now DeKalb’s interim CEO, says he knew nothing about the $4,000.

“I have never received any kind of reimbursement, no money from Water Removal Services, never,” May said. “All my bank accounts, nothing, you will not see anything that I have done. I have never participated in any kickbacks, any kind of pay to play, never.”

Williams wouldn’t say much. Other players in the transactions claim fuzzy memories and have conflicting accounts of how and why the payment was made.

Records obtained by the AJC and Channel 2 show that DeKalb paid Alpharetta-based Water Removal Services $6,500 to fix May's floors after a raw sewage back-flow, even though the company owner said he had agreed to do the work at cost, or about $2,500.

“Real quick after that,” Cotter told the AJC and Channel 2, “Mr. Williams contacted me and kind of went through Mr. May’s financial difficulties, and said, ‘Doug, is there any way you can help him out?’”

The company then issued a $4,000 check to May.

That check, which Cotter says he cashed, bears an apparently forged "Lee May" endorsement. It's become the heart of the latest federal investigation into DeKalb County corruption, the AJC and Channel 2 learned.

Where the trail stops

The AJC and Channel 2 have been looking into May’s county-paid home repair work over the last year and spent the past month piecing together transaction details.

While following the money trail, reporters confirmed that the FBI also has been probing why the check was issued and whether there is a connection to the subsequent contract. Cotter, the former owner of Water Removal Services and the man who later bought the company all said they have been interviewed by an agent.

The trail leads to the door of Williams, who abruptly retired last month as the FBI was asking questions. He had worked 17 years with the county, and in 2013 May had named him to be deputy chief operating officer over public works and infrastructure, overseeing such projects as the $1.35 billion water-sewer overhaul.

Williams left without giving two weeks’ notice or any explanation.

Cotter said he has been close friends with Williams for the past 15 years.

In June 2011, Cotter said he met Williams for coffee and gave him the $4,000 check. A few days later, he said, Williams handed it back — already endorsed on the back. “Morris asked me, ‘Doug, is there any way you can cash this for Lee?’ I said sure.”

So he took it to a liquor store in Dawsonville that his family owns, cashed it, and met Williams at a McDonald’s in Decatur to hand over the money. Cotter said he didn’t receive a cut.

He also said he didn’t question why Williams — or May — couldn’t just cash it.

“When I gave the money to Morris, I was hoping it was going to the intended use, to help Lee and his family,” Cotter said. “I just trusted somebody. If I had it to do over again, I would certainly have done it differently.”

Contacted by phone, Williams confirmed he is friends with Cotter, but in the brief conversation disputed Cotter’s account.

“That did not happen that way,” Williams said. “I did not receive that amount of money from him, for Lee, from Water Removal Services.” Williams refused to clarify whether he received any money or whether he gave funds to the commissioner.

May said the answer to that is an emphatic no, that he never received a dollar of it. After reporters showed him a front-and-back copy of the check, he contacted the FBI.

“It’s absolutely not my signature,” May said. “My assumption is, that’s some kind of federal offense.”

The FBI declined comment.

May recently hired private investigators to root out cronyism and dirty government in the county, and he said he doesn’t want the sewer affair tarnishing his reputation.

“I have three small children. I have a wonderful wife,” May said. “I would never jeopardize anything for something as silly, and illegal, as this.”

Leader under scrutiny

Through spokesman Burke Brennan, May declined a request by the AJC and Channel 2 to make his 2011 bank records available. Brennan did provide a letter May sent to the FBI, the GBI, the District Attorney’s Office and the private investigators, saying he and others “may be the victims of a crime.”

“It appears to me that this is a fraud that is being perpetuated under my name,” May’s letter says.

If Cotter wanted to help May, though, it wouldn’t have been for a stranger. Cotter, a major player in the Atlanta residential real estate business before the recession, said he once organized a campaign fundraiser for May.

May said he knew Cotter as the former president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and as a developer who’d been before the commission over zonings.

Cotter had also been caught up in another DeKalb controversy.

In 2008, he was involved in a consortium asking the county to buy 92 acres of undeveloped land in May’s south DeKalb district for $6.1 million. The administration of then-CEO Vernon Jones negotiated the deal, saying it would preserve green space. May was among commissioners supporting the purchase.

But CEO-elect Burrell Ellis questioned the property’s appraisal, which was more than three times what the owner had paid per acre two years previously. And after the AJC reported that the landowner and those connected to the consortium had given more than $30,000 to the campaigns of all seven county commissioners and to the U.S. Senate campaign of Jones, public criticism grew intense.

The commission passed on the deal.

Cotter’s home-building business suffered in the real estate collapse, and by 2010, he was working in the flood-repair business, sharing office space with John Meyer, who then owned Water Removal Services. Around this time, Cotter crossed paths again with May, who had financial problems of his own.

May had filed for bankruptcy in 2007, trying to adjust debts as he was financially reeling from a movie theater business, then in April 2011 instead sought bankruptcy liquidation. Documents he filed with the court at that time say he had only $1,200 in a checking account.

Amid that, in late 2010 when raw sewage bubbled out of May’s downstairs commode and seeped into a living room, a hallway and his garage, May recalls phoning a list of county higher-ups, seeking help.

He said he made calls to the former Watershed Management director and the former chief operating officer, among others. He said he also called Williams. Water department crews arrived and unclogged the sewer line, and the county’s emergency contractor, ServPro, cleaned up the raw sewage.

That still left May with damaged floors and baseboards in his living room and a downstairs bathroom.

Help with a home disaster

How May’s floors got fixed typified the culture festering in DeKalb government for years.

County employees disregarded their own processes to accommodate the powerful. Companies, particularly those gunning for the county’s favor, went out of their way to please influential officials. No one looked too closely if strings were pulled.

That environment allowed former Commissioner Elaine Boyer for years to charge personal expenses to taxpayers and to set up a kickback scheme the county itself never detected. It led to allegations that now suspended-CEO Ellis shook down vendors for campaign donations.

It’s why a special grand jury investigation found a $2.2-million-a-year tree-trimming contract awarded to a fake company owned by a Cartoon Network employee who didn’t even own a chainsaw. It’s why when a police detective began investigating allegations of fraud in the water department, her superiors shut her down.

In May’s case, the chain of events isn’t clear because of conflicting accounts.

Meyer said he recalls Cotter asking if his company could do a repair job at May’s home in Lithonia. At the time, Meyer said, he didn’t know who May was, but he offered to charge him only for materials, or about $2,500.

“I said, ‘Alright, well, no problem,’” Meyer said. “I said, ‘Well, how do you know this guy?’

“He goes, ‘Trust me, he’s a good friend of mine. He’s going to be a very powerful official one day.’”

Because it was a relatively small job for the company, Meyer said he paid little attention.

Cotter has a different account. He said he doesn’t recall saying that May would be powerful someday.

The exact business relationship between Meyer and Cotter isn’t clear. Meyer said Cotter wasn’t a partner nor associate, just another businessman he referred jobs to. Yet Cotter signed county bid documents identifying himself as either Water Removal Services’ president or manager.

Water Removal Services’ invoice shows that three weeks after the sewage back-flow, the company finished drying out, cleaning and disinfecting May’s house. Then the crew ripped out, replaced and repainted May’s damaged baseboards, shoe molding and wall coverings.

Then months passed, Meyer said, without the company getting paid, and he started questioning Cotter about why. Meyer’s wife and operations manager, Gloria, said job notes she found show the company began billing May and leaving him voice messages four months after the work was finished, but got no response.

On June 16, a former Water Removal Services employee sent an invoice for the full amount of repairs, $6,495, to then-Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton, emails obtained by the AJC and Channel 2 show. Cotter said that is what Williams told him to do.

Meyer said he didn’t know the company had got paid by the county.

“I didn’t tell anybody to bill DeKalb County,” Meyer said. “How that other $6,000 showed up — I’ll put my hand on the Bible, a lie detector, anything you want — I have no idea.”

Favored treatment

On the county’s end, May didn’t have to ask for special treatment. Routinely, commissioners got it anyway.

Rather than having to deal with the bureaucratic red tape other DeKalb residents face, May wasn’t told to submit a claim or estimates, and the county paid 100 percent of his repair costs, issuing a check the day after receiving the invoice.

Walton said he fast-tracked the payment because it involved a sitting commissioner.

May acknowledges that he received special treatment that wasn’t appropriate, though he says he didn’t realize it at the time. “I should have gone through the same process anyone else in that situation would have had to go through,” he said.

If the company doing the work agreed to a discount because of who May was, that would be a different type of special treatment. Meyer said he didn’t consider it a favor for May, but for Cotter.

Gloria Meyer said the $4,000 check was probably a refund for the labor costs that her husband had agreed not to charge, though she doesn’t recall specifically. She said she probably gave it to Cotter and signed her husband’s name on it.

If it was a reimbursement, then the money should have gone back to DeKalb. But open records requests turned up no such payments, and a county spokesman said he could not locate any records of a refund.

Cotter said the money was never intended as a refund, but as help for a friend. He said he had Meyer’s blessing to send the money to May. He didn’t see anything wrong with it at the time.

“If I’d have had to do it over again,” he said, “I would have just taken the money out of my pocket and given it to Lee.”

When he cashed the check, Cotter said he assumed the signature on the back was May’s.

Meyer provided the AJC and Channel 2 with a copy of the check, which is dated June 23 and cleared on June 27, 2011.

On the endorsement line on the back, the jagged “Lee May” signature differs from May’s more rounded signature on county documents.

Contract won, then terminated

Days after the check was cashed, the county put out an invitation to bid on its emergency sewer cleanup contract. In September, Cotter submitted a bid on behalf of Water Removal Services. County staff evaluated bids and recommended the winner. Commission meeting records say Cotter underbid four other companies to win the job.

May made the motion to award the contract in December 2011. May's spokesman said in an email that commissioners can't influence the bid process, only vote for or against staff recommendations.

Walton said no one tampered with the bid. And Cotter said that while Williams or May might have told him about the bid opportunity, they pulled no strings for him.

“Neither Morris Williams or Lee May had anything they could do with the contract,” Cotter said. “It’s not a thing where you get to pick the prettiest one at the dance. It’s a low-bid process.”

Around that time, Meyer said that he and Cotter had a bitter falling out. Meyer said he suspected Cotter of trying to take over his company and that they argued over payments.

Cotter incorporated a new company, Haw Creek Restoration, and Meyer signed documents assigning him the contract rights as part of a settlement of their financial dispute. He said he also had suspicions about Cotter’s work for May, so he wanted no part of working for DeKalb.

“I’m not a dumb person. I knew enough. Doug was doing him a favor,” Meyer said. “I knew there was something going on, but I don’t ask, because that’s his business.”

Walton and the current purchasing director said such transferring of contracts is allowable, so long as the county consents.

After receiving two contract extensions and earning more than $300,000 from the county from 2012 to early 2014, Haw Creek terminated its contract in April 2014. The company has since gone out of business.

“We were losing money,” Cotter said. “It was a bad business decision.”

Cotter said he never lost touch with Williams, who last called him in March.

“He said, ‘I’m retiring. Doug, I can’t talk about it right now. Let’s talk at the end of the week,’” Cotter said. “He said, ‘I’m going to take some time off. I’ll call you and we’ll get together.’”

That was the last he heard.

Digging deep

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began looking into the repair work at Lee May’s home last year based on a tip and then zeroed in on the issue this spring after receiving more information. The AJC and Channel 2 Action News used the Georgia Open Records Act to trace payment records and obtained other key documents from the company that did the work. You can examine many of those documents for yourself; they’re posted on the MyAJC website. In addition to the sources named in the story, reporters also talked with other current and former county officials, former employees of the companies involved and other DeKalb residents. If you have tips about government waste or malfeasance, email the reporter, John.Edwards@ajc.com.