Vendors in DeKalb government probe earned millions

When authorities searched the home of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis last week, six companies suddenly found themselves sharing an unwanted spotlight.

The businesses were identified by name in the search warrants that gave the public its first look – albeit a rough sketch – at where the budding corruption investigation is heading. In addition to Ellis, the CEO’s campaign manager, Kevin Ross, was served with search warrants for his home and office.

The documents offer no detail on how each company fits into an investigation that has touched the top rung of DeKalb’s government.

But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found:

  • Four of the companies have been paid more than $4 million by DeKalb County since Ellis took office in January 2009, compared to less than $25,000 before Ellis’ election, according to financial data obtained by the AJC.
  • A fifth vendor named in the search warrant affidavits, an ambulance company, is paid directly by patients, not by the county, for services it provides in DeKalb. But that contract has been previously estimated to generate at least $8.5 million a year.
  • Four of the companies have hired Ross, Ellis’ friend and adviser, as a consultant.
  • Five of the companies, their employees or their relatives contributed nearly $20,000 combined to Ellis’ campaigns, according to an AJC analysis.

Neither Ellis nor Ross has been charged with a crime in connection with the investigation.

Ellis declined comment for this story, referring to previous statements that he had never made any promises to campaign contributors or told vendors they must be contributors to win DeKalb projects.

Ross, in a statement provided by a spokesman, also denied wrongdoing.

“I have never advised a client to make a campaign contribution in order to secure business with any government,” Ross said.

Special grand jury

DeKalb District Attorney Robert James convened a special grand jury last year to investigate contracts in the county’s water and sewer department.

Last week, the investigation broadened to include Ellis, the county’s top elected official, Ross and the six companies. Investigators searched both men’s homes and offices, looking for evidence of bribery, bid-rigging and other crimes of political corruption, according to the search warrants.

The common thread among the firms is that all have sought work from DeKalb County. Five actually received contracts.

The businesses are: two lobbying firms, The Ferguson Group and Massey, Watson, Bowers & Hembree; Inland Waters Pollution Control, an underground pipe repair company; MWH Global, an engineering and construction services firm; Rural/Metro Corp., an ambulance company; and Sentinel Offender Services, a probation services company.

“My partner and I were both surprised to see our firm name involved in this inquiry,” said Bruce Bowers, who co-founded Massey, Watson Bowers & Hembree with his father, former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, and another partner in 2003. “Unfortunately, we have no idea or knowledge, beyond what we have read in the media, of what is being looked at in this situation and, to date, we have made no inquiries.”

Bowers’ remarks came in a brief statement issued in response to questions from the AJC.

Only one of the companies agreed to speak with the newspaper. Three declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation, and one did not return messages.

The company that granted an interview, Sentinel, said it hired Ross as a consultant to help the company win back probation services work that it once had with DeKalb. But the company says it did not support any effort to terminate the contract of its competitor. 

Sentinel’s chief business development officer, Mark Contestabile, whose father is the owner, told the AJC this week that the DeKalb district attorney has requested information from Sentinel about Ross’ connection to the company.

“That’s the only information they wanted from us,” Contestabile said.

He said news of the investigation caught the company unawares.

“We had no indications of any of this,” Contestabile said. “All that was a surprise. We heard about it through the media.”

‘No quid pro quo’

Ross, who has worked as a consultant for Sentinel, Rural/Metro, MWH Global and Inland Waters, no longer represents Sentinel but still does work for the others. He said he does not handle MWH Global’s dealings with DeKalb.

In separate instances that involved Sentinel’s and Rural/Metro’s competitors, county officials either terminated or tried to terminate contracts with those competitors. The effort involving Sentinel’s competitor failed after a judge pointed out that the county didn’t have the legal authority to terminate probation services contracts.

In the other case, the county did cancel a contract with Rural/Metro’s competitor in 2010. A month later, Rural/Metro was awarded an “emergency” yearlong contract that has been extended and remains in place.

Ellis has previously said it is a coincidence that his friend and campaign manager worked as a consultant for the competitors of those two vendors.

Contestabile insists that hiring Ross as a consultant was not done in exchange for getting government work from DeKalb.

“I can tell you there was no quid pro quo,” Contestabile said. “There were no promises, no guarantees, nothing. It was a simple consulting arrangement that we entered into and very soon thereafter canceled. … We have nothing to hide, cover up or duck from.”

One of the other companies for which Ross works, MWH Global, which is also referred to as Montgomery Watson, has a client testimonial on Ross’ website:

“Montgomery Watson has had a long, beneficial relationship with the Ross firm. Kevin works with our company on both local and national issues. What we have observed at both levels is a top notch adviser with strong governmental and professional relationships. Kevin Ross is respected and trusted within our company.”

The quote is attributed to Dean Bell, listed as a vice president with MWH Americas, a division of MWH Global.

Bill Campbell connection

To those familiar with Atlanta politics, the DeKalb investigation may seem familiar.

In 1996, then-Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell pushed to award a $16.5 million design contract to a team of companies that included Montgomery Watson. At the time, Ross, who was Campbell’s friend and campaign manager, represented Montgomery Watson.

But the evaluation panel that listened to presentations from five engineering teams vying for the contract wanted to go with another firm.

The mayor held up the decision for weeks. Campbell eventually backed off, persuaded by others to do so.

While the large contract went to another firm, Campbell recommended that Montgomery Watson get a $1.5 million contract to consult on the same project, which the city council approved.

Then-Atlanta City Council President Marvin Arrington, however, called the smaller contract a “consolation prize” and said the public trust had been eroded by the “appearance of impropriety.”

$3.1 million to one vendor

Among the companies named in DeKalb’s search warrants, Inland Waters received the most money from the county government.

According to county financial data obtained through an Open Records Act request, Inland Waters received $3.1 million in 2011 and 2012.

And the pipe repair company, which lists an office in Stone Mountain, has contracts with DeKalb that could bring in more. A database of DeKalb’s contracts revealed three contracts with Inland Waters over the past few years.

According to that data, Inland Waters could collect up to $6.5 million on those contracts.

Inland Waters, a subsidiary of Inland Pipe Rehabilitation, which is headquartered in Texas, declined to comment.

“It’s IPR’s policy that we do not comment on pending investigations,” said company spokesperson Mark Winter.

Campaign contributions

For his two elections, in 2008 and 2012, Ellis received nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions from five of the six companies. The AJC did not find any donations involving The Ferguson Group or its employees.

Massey, Watson, Bowers & Hembree, also referred to as Massey Bowers, gave the most, donating $6,500 to Ellis’ most recent campaign.

Most of that money – $5,500 – came from Bruce Bowers and his wife, Deena.

Montgomery Watson, and those associated with or employed by the company, chipped in $5,300 dating back to 2008, while Inland Waters, its parent company and one employee donated a combined $5,000, records show.

It’s common practice for firms that do business with local governments – cities, counties, school boards – to make campaign contributions.

“They do it to encourage local officials to remember them, but rarely have I seen or heard of it being a quid pro quo,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican and former DeKalb county attorney. “Only when it becomes a quid pro quo do you have a problem.”

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