DA still probing phony ethics document

DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James is still seeking the origins of a fishy legal document that first allowed a government insider to seek county contracts.

His office pulled records from the county government and the DeKalb Ethics Board in late February, soon after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News exposed the fake document. Ethics Chairman John Ernst said that's the last he heard from law enforcement on the issue.

For the past two years, James' office has poured most of its corruption-fighting energy into prosecuting the man at the top, ex-CEO Burrell Ellis. With Ellis now convicted of perjury and attempted extortion, the coming months will test the DA's resolve to dig deeper.

James has several paths to choose from. For starters, the special grand jury whose work led to Ellis’ prosecution recommended criminal investigations of at least 11 other people, including Ellis’ campaign manager and the former public safety director, accused of smothering a detective’s probe into water department contracts. None of the 11 has been charged.

“A lot of people are asking, what’s the next shoe to drop?” Ernst said.

James’ review of the document continues, his spokesman said.

It was actually a draft written by the Ethics Board’s attorney for its possible consideration on the question of whether APD Solutions could bid for county business since its CEO, Vaughn Irons, is a member of the Development Authority board.

Someone had dressed up the draft to make it look valid. The signature of then-chairman Bryan Smith was on it, though Smith said he doesn’t recall signing it and doesn’t rule out forgery.

Just before the document showed up, Irons had called Smith wanting to know what became of his request for a favorable ethics ruling.

The Ethics Board, in disarray at the time, had never taken a vote on Irons’ two-year-old request.

Irons has maintained that he didn’t know the board never voted and has attributed the fake ethics opinion’s sudden appearance in the contracting department to “bureaucratic inefficiency.”

However, Smith said he recalls flatly telling Irons that the board hadn’t ruled.

“I told him we hadn’t gotten to it,” Smith told the AJC recently. “I kinda’ was real quick. With, ‘Sorry, we’re getting around to it. We haven’t been able to meet on your particular situation.’”

Irons would not consent to an interview for this story.

About the same time Irons made his call to Smith, then-DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis intervened on Irons’ behalf, according to a former county official.

Kelvin Walton — the prosecution’s star witness in Ellis’ recent corruption trial — told the AJC that both Ellis and his chief of staff called him on Irons’ behalf in late 2011. Walton said his boss wanted to know why APD was being excluded, arguing, “I don’t think it’s a conflict.”

Irons had supported Ellis’ campaign. He, his company and its employees gave Ellis a collective $2,500, campaign records show. Ellis was sentenced to 18 months in prison earlier this month for using his office to try to wring campaign contributions from county contractors.

Campaign records show APD also gave a $500 campaign contribution to Commissioner Stan Watson, whom Irons had on retainer as a consultant for $500 per month from 2012 to 2014.

Watson’s vote on APD’s contract is the subject of an ongoing Ethics Board case. Irons faces an ethics complaint for allegedly winning a county contract under false pretenses.

APD also gave $250 to Lee May, a commissioner who became interim CEO after Ellis' suspension. After the AJC/Channel 2 reports about the fake document, May announced he would replace Irons and all other members of the Development Authority. The County Commission is still mulling May's nominees.