Running up $900,000 tab easier than you’d think

DeKalb CEO Lee May condensed the nearly $900,000 investigation of his county’s corrupt government into a single word: “wasteful.”

When he last spoke with the special investigators who last week released a damning report, “70 percent of the meeting was about money,” May said. “And I told them, ‘You’re going to get your money.’” But after seeing the report, May said, “I want some of it back.”

Set aside for a moment the fact that May authorized the broad, inevitably costly investigation (and was the most prominent official among those implicated). And never mind whether the final report delivered the goods on a county the investigators deemed "rotten to the core."

For many, the real question is how one could run up $885,293.82 in bills from a law firm in just six months.

As it turns out, it’s easier than you might think.

Tasked with rooting out corruption in 44 county departments, the law firm Balch & Bingham unleashed five attorneys (at $400 an hour, discounted by as much as one-third off the regular rate), six investigators ($300 an hour) and one paralegal (a relatively modest $150 an hour). They interviewed scores of county employees and vendors. They ran down leads from confidential informants. They researched the policies and practices that enabled corruption to flourish. And they followed a trail of public money into what they described as a rat hole of unaccountable spending.

On April 1, for example, Mike Bowers, the former state attorney general who was one of the two lead investigators, reviewed spending by two county departments and met with two confidential sources. For work that took 4 hours and 36 minutes, Bowers’ firm billed the county $1,840.

Balch & Bingham’s charges totaled $11,310 that day, one of eight times in April alone that billings topped $10,000. The biggest day was April 15, when members of the investigative team met with at least three sources, interviewed employees of two county vendors, researched such arcane topics as sovereign immunity, and looked into allegations that May accepted money from a county contractor who repaired damage to his home (allegations that May denies). For that day, the fees totaled slightly more than $18,000. April’s bills came to $226,494 – only to be topped by the following month’s total of $229,251.

The bills kept coming as investigators focused on high-ranking county officials. Then, in August, May pulled the plug. He ordered the investigators to write a final report and do nothing more.

“It was going to take a lot more if we had done what Mr. May asked us to do originally,” Bowers said in an interview Friday. “We narrowed it twice – at his request.”

Investigators ran out of time and couldn’t look into many departments, Bowers said. One in particular, Watershed Management, needs much more scrutiny, he said. The investigators even considered hiring a forensic auditor to help.

When May appointed Bowers and investigator Richard Hyde to lead the inquiry in March, he set few limits, either for the scope of their work or the cost. He wanted Bowers and Hyde to replicate their investigation of the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal, which laid the groundwork for the successful prosecution of more than 30 educators.

That investigation took about a year and generated a 400-page report that identified almost 200 teachers and administrators involved in a scheme to illicitly boost scores on standardized tests. The state paid Balch & Bingham about $1.6 million and another firm, Wilson, Morton & Downs, about $1.2 million.

In Atlanta, Bowers said Friday, his team had a head start: The state already had commissioned a statistical analysis that pointed investigators to the educators most likely to have cheated.

But in DeKalb, Bowers said, “we had nothing to start with – absolutely nothing.”

The DeKalb investigation was further complicated, Bowers said, when a grand jury indicted a former county commission aide, Bob Lundsten, on charges of theft by taking and making false statements. Lundsten, who pleaded not guilty, allegedly used county money to buy personal goods, including groceries, in amounts as small as $12. Because the grand jury essentially criminalized even the smallest irregularities, Bowers said, the special investigators had no choice but to examine every expenditure, not just larger ones.

“We would have looked at one of every four or five expenditures,” Bowers said.

The bills also accumulated because of a few false starts and miscalculations by investigators.

One attorney took almost 10 days to schedule and conduct an interview with the head of the county’s merit system. On April 6, the lawyer tried unsuccessfully to reach the official and then read news articles and blog posts about her. The fee: $720. That was just the beginning. A second unanswered telephone call resulted in a $40 charge. A telephone conversation and additional research: $520. Preparation for the interview and the interview itself: $2,920. And, finally, a post-interview de-briefing with Bowers: $320.

In all, this one interview cost $4,520.

Later, two investigators drove to Athens, intending to interview a county vendor. The person wasn’t available, so the investigators waited for him to call. They never heard from him and returned to Atlanta empty-handed. But between them, the investigators billed the county $2,325.

Even meetings at the law firm’s office could get pricey. When five investigators got together on April 7 to discuss strategy, each billed $375 – a total of $1,875 for a little more than one hour.

Still, the bills reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contained no patently inappropriate expenses. The law firm didn’t charge the county for meals. The only travel costs involved the time to get from one place to another.

So far, the county has paid Balch & Bingham more than $673,000. Outstanding bills total $211,790.

It wasn’t clear by the end of the week whether the county would pay the balance. During a news conference last week, May pledged to ask “for some of our money back. And I will be taking the appropriate measures in order to do that.”

But asked Friday to identify questionable expenses they might not pay, county officials did not respond.