Squelched DeKalb corruption report omitted details of wider problems

Leads pointing to theft, misconduct, now in the hands of GBI

Mike Bowers needed to find whistleblowers. Acting DeKalb County CEO Lee May had hired him to sniff out any corruption lingering in the government before news reporters or federal indictments again caught May off guard. But Bowers was given little direction.

So in a public pronouncement, Bowers, the state's former attorney general, urged tipsters to come forward, then held up his right hand and swore to God that he would expose any conflicts of interest, fraud or graft. "But the good, decent folks, you have nothing whatsoever to fear from us," he said at a March press conference.

Tips poured in: A fleet supervisor was accused of pilfering brass parts to sell for scrap. A garbage collector, of taking cash under the table from a nightclub. A landfill worker, of helping himself to the county’s gasoline. A department director, of ordering up a truckload of mulch delivered to his house free of charge.

There were reports of suspicious envelopes passing from vendors to upper managers, and of managers who broke rules skirting punishment.

Such accounts didn’t make it into the 40-page report that Bowers and investigator Richard Hyde eventually handed over to May — following a public spat in which the interim CEO pulled the plug on their work.

Hyde said that since everything they had would be sent to the GBI, he wasn’t going to the trouble of fleshing out their incomplete work for May. “We’re a money-making organization,” Hyde said. “We had been fired. It was clear he wasn’t interested in what we had to say.”

But the details are laid bare in more than 250 pages of investigators’ backup notes, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained from Bowers’ law firm through an Open Records Act request. The GBI is reviewing the same material for any criminal activity on orders from Gov. Nathan Deal.

The AJC’s review sheds light on how the county wound up with a final document at a rate of more than $22,000 per page. While the stunted report has been criticized for treading old ground, Bowers’ and Hyde’s investigators had been inundated with tips and were headed down a network of trails. Signs pointed to criminal and unethical behavior, much of it involving low-level employees accused by coworkers of favored treatment and minor theft. But some leads suggested potential widespread misconduct.

DeKalb’s chief operating officer, Zachary Williams, said the county will request the investigative notes, too, but he has already seen samplings provided by the AJC. He said he’s turned them over to the DeKalb County Police Department, which has launched a criminal investigation into a report of a trash collector soliciting cash for extra weekly pickups.

“Our intent, before day one, was to identify where there are people who are violating policies, rules, ethical behavior, or law, and fix it,” Williams said. “And if that means termination, then so be it. If that means jail, so be it.”

May declined an interview request for this story. He has publicly called the report “laughable” and “wasteful” and flat-out wrong when it accused him of spending county money on luxuries during a Hawaii conference. May has been on a circuit of community meetings, saying Bowers and Hyde had veered off mission and were running up a massive bill.

The tab eventually reached $885,000.

Hyde said that with all his investigators were uncovering, he needed about six more months to finish. Among the allegations: that May had taken a loan from a subordinate, who he admitted promoting into the upper echelons of the county despite his habit of not showing up for work.

“I think he was concerned about what we were finding,” Hyde said of May.

What the report held back

Bowers unleashed five attorneys and six investigators, including former police officers and ex-IRS agents. It didn’t take them long to find cultures festering in some departments where some employees felt they could take what they wanted, the notes show.

Two fleet technicians said that after they reported a supervisor was loading brass parts into his pickup truck, their boss summoned them to his office, crawled onto a table and pounded his fist. “You don’t drop this, you may lose your job,” one of them accused Fleet Maintenance Director Greg Brake of saying.

“I can’t believe that that’s actually in there,” Brake, who retired last month, told the AJC. “That’s just a ludicrous lie.”

Brake said he grew weary of investigators focusing on rumors and petty accusations. As they conducted interview after interview, more rumors flourished.

“You had a lot of good people being treated like they were criminals and just asked ugly questions,” Brake said.

The alleged theft of brass illustrates the kinds of tips the investigators were hearing, and the lengths they went to in trying to pin down possible criminal acts.

Fleet Service Supervisor Eddie Van Stavern was accused in 2010 of taking home discarded brass fire truck parts that otherwise would have been recycled by the county for money. But Brake said he considered it scavenging, not stealing, and handed him a five-day suspension.

Tipsters told investigators that most employees would have been fired and arrested.

An investigator interviewed Van Stavern, who said he only planned to polish the parts and bring them back to the office as paperweights.

But a former Fleet Maintenance parts clerk, Sandra Mason, told an investigator that early one morning in late 2012 she had seen Van Stavern loading heavy brass pieces into the back of his pickup truck. She told the AJC she never reported that to her supervisors because of what she’d heard about the men who turned him in before.

“Any time we reported anything, we were deemed as troublemakers,” said Mason, who no longer works for DeKalb.

The team checked with a recycling center in Griffin and found Van Stavern had been turning in brass for cash there for years, along with other metals that had netted him a total $3,000, according to a summary in the notes. He told the investigator he recycled scrap metal from personal cars he worked on in his spare time, the notes show.

Van Stavern did not return several phone messages from the AJC.

Brake said when the investigator showed him the recycling center records, he was “extremely disheartened.”

“I, at this point, don’t know if I had made the right decision,” Brake said.

Mason said she’s still in contact with former coworkers who cooperated with Bowers’ investigators.

“They feel like, now we’re in trouble,” Mason said. “They’ll never get promoted. They (supervisors) will always find a reason to give a sub-par evaluation.”

Heat on department heads

The investigators also questioned Brake about a load of mulch delivered to his house in 2011. Emails surfaced between him and a Sanitation deputy director, where he requested the material and she responded that it would be delivered at no charge.

Mulch is free for DeKalb residents who pick it up at the landfill, but delivery costs $7.50 per cubic yard. Brake’s load would have cost him about $90.

“I don’t know if they were charging the actual county employees for mulch, so it’s not like it’s a big deal,” he said.

More heat came down on Brake’s counterpart at the Sanitation department, Director Billy Malone, who crashed a county truck into a traffic post last year at a landfill. Several employees alleged that instead of following proper procedures, Malone had walked away from the wreck scene, according to the notes.

It was Malone’s third accident within 36 months, and he could have faced termination. Though he reported the crashes to his supervisors, none had been investigated or gone before the department’s Accident Review Board, which Malone chairs. The only corrective action taken at the time was to paint the traffic post yellow, the notes say.

Bowers and Hyde referenced the incident in an August status update, and it was highlighted last month in news reports.

Williams, the DeKalb chief operating officer, then suspended Malone for three weeks without pay. Malone did not respond to an AJC interview request.

A trash scam?

The Bowers/Hyde report briefly mentioned an “allegation of bribery,” saying cryptically that they had turned what info they had over to the GBI.

Notes indicate that involved Juicy’s Joint nightclub in Decatur. Its owner claimed that a man identifying himself as “the trash guy” paid him a visit earlier this year, wanting an extra $80 per month to empty his dumpster twice a week instead of once.

Ordinarily, twice-a-week service would cost an extra $175 per month.

Juicy’s Joint paid the man $160 in cash to cover two months, but then the owner, Wendell Robinson, told him he didn’t need two pickups a week anymore.

After that, he couldn’t even consistently get the once-a-week service he was paying the county for.

Robinson declined to be interviewed for this story. It’s not clear in his account in the investigator’s notes if the “trash guy” actually worked for DeKalb Sanitation.

“At this point, the evidence that (the employee) has been accepting bribes from Sanitation customers is not conclusive,” the notes by Investigator Jim Lunsford say.

The job wasn’t done

In some cases, the notes show, tips turned out to be baseless. Such was the case with a $13,000 check supposedly mailed to a Fleet Maintenance superintendent by a vendor, which was actually a legitimate payment to the county from an automotive company for warranty work. A tip that a Sanitation employee was connected to a company doing concrete work at a landfill also fizzled under scrutiny.

Other times, the investigators had tips that they never fully explored. Mason, the former parts clerk, reported that she once witnessed two employees from a parts company passing an envelope to a supervisor in the Fleet Maintenance parking lot. It’s not mentioned again in the notes.

Nor do the notes say what became of an investigator’s hunch that workers with take-home vehicles may have been stealing gasoline. A former Sanitation supervisor, Rodney McDaniel, last week was sentenced to three years in prison for using his personal gas code to steal $10,000 in gasoline from county pumps in 2011 and 2012.

Investigator Ted Stewart suspected a wider problem.

“I have fuel logs dating back one year on all DeKalb county take-home cars whose assigned drivers gassed up on a Thursday or Friday and again on the following Monday,” Stewart said in an email to Hyde and other investigators. While many of them were police cars used on weekends, he said, “there is much suspicious activity by other county employees many of which are not known to work except Monday-Friday.”

The team did bear down on an assistant superintendent at the Seminole Road landfill, who was accused by a former underling of stealing county gas. Questioned about fuel logs showing multiple fill-ups minutes apart, the superintendent explained that the pumps sometimes shut down, or that sometimes he stopped pumping to use the bathroom.

Asked why, on three occasions, the logs showed more gallons of gas were pumped than what trucks could hold, he said the pumps skipped sometimes, skewing the records.

He was at a loss to explain how, dozens of times, logs showed vehicles fueled at the landfill after midnight and into the morning hours. He said he usually left at midnight and arrived at work just before 2 p.m.

The superintendent said someone must have his fuel code.

County Commissioner Nancy Jester said May should have let the investigation play out.

“You can’t spend an unlimited amount, I understand that,” she said. “But look at the years of exposure to waste, fraud and abuse. Add that up.”

The GBI expects to finish its review of Bowers’ and Hyde’s material by year’s end, a spokesman said. The agency will then meet with Gov. Deal, who could bring in prosecutors.


Digging deep

DeKalb County has had troubles with corruption going back more than a decade. But after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution caught Commissioner Elaine Boyer abusing her purchasing card in early 2014, it set off a new round of scrutiny of county operations and the staggering lack of internal controls.

Interim CEO Lee May brought in special investigators to get to the bottom of the mess earlier this year, but the moved backfired on him when the investigators’ report called for him to resign. The AJC has been scrutinizing that document amid the fallout, finding errors in the report and highlighting where May has made contradictory statements about an alleged loan he took from a subordinate. In today’s story, the AJC reveal other trails of possible corruption that the investigators followed, but didn’t include in their report.

Trails and dead ends

Mike Bowers’ and Richard Hyde’s investigative team found themselves swimming in tips and allegations about malfeasance within DeKalb County. Most of their inquires were cut short when interim CEO Lee May pulled the plug. A sampling:

Conclusions

  • The county was wasting money on a no-bid, $2.4 million contract with Mobile Communications to remove, repair and install vehicle radio equipment. Other companies could do the work for less, the Bowers/Hyde report said. The county has since put the job out for bid.
  • County commissioners were violating the state Constitution's gratuities clause by using their office budgets to donate to charities and nonprofits. The county attorney, partially agreeing, has advised commissioners to end the practice.

Dead ends

  • A $13,000 check written from a vendor to a Fleet Maintenance superintendent turned out to be a legitimate payment for warranty work.
  • An allegation that a Sanitation employee had ownership in a company doing landfill work didn't hold up to scrutiny.

Incomplete

  • The investigators accused May of taking a loan from former subordinate Morris Williams, which May denies. Because there was no in-depth interrogation, Hyde never established what kind of loan it was, how much it was for, and when the money supposedly changed hands.
  • A Decatur business owner said a man identifying himself as “the trash guy” wanted money under the table for extra weekly garbage pickups. But his description of the man didn’t match a photo of the DeKalb Sanitation employee who works that route.