DeKalb County’s commissioners are withholding more than $700,000 from ongoing corruption investigations, saying they need greater accountability before paying for more efforts to root out dishonesty in government.
Some commissioners said the county needs to move on from years of scandal, and they questioned whether taxpayer money is being well spent.
The commission voted 4-3 Tuesday on a budget that removes $500,000 sought by Interim CEO Lee May to help pay for an independent inquiry led by former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, along with $208,000 requested by DeKalb District Attorney Robert James to hire four employees in his Public Integrity Unit in the last four months of the year.
Their investigations will continue despite the lack of funding, and commissioners said they will consider appropriating money in the future if those expenses can be justified.
Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who took office Monday, has said the “cloud of investigations” by several agencies — the FBI, the Board of Ethics, the District Attorney’s Office and Bowers — should be brought to a close.
“I feel it’s a little overkill. You can only investigate so much,” Johnson said last week after winning a runoff election. “It’s been over three years now, and so for us to move forward, these investigations must come to a conclusion.”
Criminal prosecutions have resulted in more than a dozen convictions of county officials and employees, including suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, who was found guilty this month of attempted extortion and perjury.
Former Commissioner Elaine Boyer pleaded guilty last year to bilking taxpayers of more than $93,000. Former Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in a school construction scandal, and former school construction chief Pat Reid and architect Tony Pope were convicted and sentenced to prison.
The denial of funding for investigations raises suspicions about the commission’s priorities, said Dan DeWoskin, the president of the DeKalb Bar Association.
“This is a house on fire. DeKalb County is plagued with the mistrust of its constituents,” DeWoskin said. “There’s got to be accountability.”
Commissioner Kathie Gannon said she was concerned about spending so much money on Bowers’ investigation without any approval or oversight from the commission. May hired Bowers for an open-ended investigation of the county in March, and he had billed the county $289,358 through April, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. More recent invoices weren’t available Friday.
“It’s like giving your checkbook over to a contractor and saying there’s probably something wrong with my house, find it and fix it for whatever amount you want,” Gannon said. “I have been a big supporter of the special investigators — with some direction and scope.”
Bowers said he will continue his work, and May said he expects the commission will make a decision once Bowers makes a preliminary report in early August.
“We wanted to do the special investigation so we could truly understand what’s going on in our day-to-day operations, what’s happened in the past as well as what we can do to make improvements going forward,” May said.
Whether any other government officials will face criminal charges isn’t known; James said after Ellis’ conviction that it wasn’t appropriate to discuss potential ongoing investigations.
He told the commission last week that he needed funding to hire two attorneys, an investigator and a paralegal in his Public Integrity Unit, which has had to rely on staff who otherwise would have been prosecuting gangs, sexual assaults and human trafficking.
Ridding the county of corruption will be a long-term goal that requires dedicated resources, James said during a budget retreat July 16. That became clear to him after the DeKalb school contract manipulation case.
“What we thought would be a temporary need quite frankly became a permanent need,” James said. “What I’m asking right now is for you all to stop the bleeding.”
Commissioners Larry Johnson, Mereda Davis Johnson, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Stan Watson voted for the county’s $1.33 billion mid-year budget. Commissioners Gannon, Nancy Jester and Jeff Rader voted against it.
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