Suspicions surround DeKalb’s ‘missing’ millions

The item is buried on a 4-year-old DeKalb County Purchasing Department spreadsheet: an eyebrow-raising $72,348,739.04 to build a sidewalk.

The actual cost? Just under $1.26 million.

DeKalb officials say the discrepancy is some kind of error — a baffling but harmless mistake.

But the citizens group Unhappy Taxpayer & Voter is more wary. In a county that has seen one government corruption case after another, members of the group say, it’s obvious a comprehensive audit needs to be conducted.

If there really is more than $70 million missing from DeKalb’s accounts, it would be a heist of epic proportions that dwarfs previous  scandals. Or perhaps it’s just an innocent typo.

DeKalb government spokesman Burke Brennan said county officials looked into the issue and found no indications of misspending.

“We have no evidence to support any other conclusion than that the spreadsheet is wrong,” Brennan said. “We are not missing $70 million. … It’s mind-boggling. It’s impossible.”

To put the $70 million amount in perspective, it would represent more than 5 percent of the county’s $1.38 billion annual budget.

“If there was $70 million missing from the county, it would be readily apparent,” said DeKalb Budget Director Jay Vinicki. “That size is so large that it would have ramifications countywide.”

As it is, the county’s budget is balanced, and payments to the sidewalk contractor add up to the correct amount.

Viola Davis, the DeKalb resident who runs Unhappy Taxpayer & Voter, said she’s concerned that money may have been stolen, and she won’t be convinced otherwise unless the county conducts an audit.

“With all the problems we’ve had, every homeowner and taxpayer in DeKalb County wants answers,” Davis said. “We don’t trust the numbers the county is giving us. The oversight has been extremely poor, with no accountability.”

The sidewalk project along South Hairston Road near Stone Mountain already has resulted in convictions of two former DeKalb employees. Fidelis Ogbu and Neacacha Joyner, who were both engineering supervisors, pleaded guilty to shaking down the project’s contractor for bribes.

The contractor, Alessandro Salvo, went to the FBI and agreed to work undercover on the case. Ogbu served two years and seven months in federal prison, while Joyner served almost two years.

Salvo said his company, G.S. Construction, was paid correctly under its contract with the county. DeKalb finance documents show 16 checks to the company totaling almost $1.26 million in 2010 and 2011, according to payment records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through Georgia’s Open Records Act. The county paid G.S. Construction under a contract worth up to $1.46 million.

“If it were anywhere else, I would have thought, ‘Nah, it’s just an error on a spreadsheet,’” Salvo said. “You never know with these guys. They were fast and loose with their accounting.”

Davis’ group discovered the spreadsheet after she filed open records requests for the emails of Kelvin Walton, the county’s former purchasing director. Walton resigned in October 2014 after testifying in the trial of DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, when Walton admitted that he had lied under oath and accepted gifts.

Attached to one of the emails was the spreadsheet, dated March 20, 2012, showing a long list of vendors paid by DeKalb in 2010 and 2011. About halfway down the 6,319-row spreadsheet, in the column labeled “Amount Paid,” was the questionable amount for the sidewalk contract.

“I don’t remember a contract approved by the Board (of Commissioners) for $72 million. That’s crazy,” Walton said. “That might have been a typo or something like that.”

The fishy figure could be investigated by DeKalb’s incoming chief audit executive, a newly created position meant to provide independent oversight of government finances, Davis said. Two finalists for the auditor job are being submitted this month to the DeKalb Commission for consideration.

Commissioner Nancy Jester said the auditor could review the contract, and she also wants the board’s Finance, Audit and Budget Committee to more closely monitor spending.

“We’ve got to take it seriously. It can’t just be blown off,” Jester said. “We don’t have all the facts, and it’s very easy to say it’s a typo or some sort of clerical error that didn’t actually result in a financial irregularity. We need a fresh set of eyes on this.”

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