Bill Torpy at Large: Did DeKalb DA dig enough dirt to suit voters?

DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James put the county’s top politician behind bars and boasts he has prosecuted 40 public employees and officials.

But the knock on him is that he’s been soft on corruption. And because of that, he just might be vulnerable in the May 24 primary.

It’s rare a sitting DA loses his job in an election, but a long list of local notables have lined up to support his opponent, Solicitor Sherry Boston.

The endorsements for Boston include two former DeKalb DAs, a former sheriff, a congressman, five state reps, four county commissioners, three state senators, two mayors and a partridge in a pear tree.

Fine, says James. “I didn’t seek support from the establishment,” he said, before mimicking civil rights firebrand Hosea Williams. “I’m not bought. I’m not bossed.”

A brusque fellow by nature, James has tried to soften his image, posting photos on his Facebook page kissing babies — his own, in fact. It’s a message saying “Family man sure wants to keep his job.”

James counters his opponent’s endorsements by noting he has raised more money. He has, but it’s like $221,000 to $219,000 since last summer, and several attorneys are giving to both sides, a sign that they think she might win. Instead of touting name-brand endorsements, James’ campaign issues “REAL people of DeKalb endorsements” from teachers and grandmothers.

He did get a plug from former Gov. Roy Barnes, who kicked in the maximum $2,600.

“Robert James is a man of integrity,” Barnes said when I called.

His opponent knocks such integrity, pointing out that he repaid $1,900 in P-Card expenses; that he didn’t file several required fundraising and finance disclosures; and that he refused to honor an Open Records request by investigators last year looking into waste, fraud and mismanagement into the county.

He notes he did nothing wrong with P-cards. He acknowledges that his record-keeping can sometimes be sloppy. And on the records request, he says his office didn’t fall under the purview of the investigation.

But the major criticism isn’t that he’s too vigorous in fighting the political establishment. It’s that he hasn’t gone far enough in rooting out corruption. A special purpose grand jury, one driven by James’ office, started out looking for corruption in the watershed department and later recommended that 12 officials be investigated for possible criminal investigation. But from that dozen, just CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted and later convicted on three counts of perjury and one count of attempted theft by extortion.

Basically, James’s investigators caught DeKalb’s procurement director Kelvin Walton lying and flipped him into a wire-wearing mole who reeled in Ellis as the CEO called county contractors and pressured them for campaign donations. When later questioned about it, Ellis told the grand jury he hadn’t. But the snitch’s recording said otherwise.

Hello prison jumpsuit.

Still, the matter of rooting out corruption in contracts, alleged kickbacks, favoritism and other chicanery went by the wayside. James recently told my colleague Mark Niesse it was largely water under the bridge.

“The public corruption was there for the DA to stick his spikes into and go after but he didn’t,” said former DeKalb DA Bob Wilson, who has endorsed Boston. “It was more politics than going after corruption. It looks good to go after the CEO. They go after a politician on campaign stuff but not to the base of the corruption.”

Wilson, part of the task force that cracked open the Atlanta school cheating scandal, knows the DeKalb corruption case pretty well. The special grand jury investigation largely came from a lawsuit he brought for a tree trimmer who alleged he didn’t get paid because he wouldn’t grease palms in DeKalb.

“I went as deep as the evidence let me,” James counters. “I don’t start prosecutions without evidence to warrant them.”

James complained I was ignoring all the good work he has done since coming to office in 2010, like sending pimps to prison and convicting scores of gang members.

I did note last week that James has been a strong voice calling for more action on fighting national street gangs while police were still reluctant to mutter the “G” word.

But a perception of corruption has stuck to DeKalb, hurting investment by businesses coming to the county. I’m even hearing that some contractors won’t bid for county contracts, wanting to avoid potential problems.

James noted that the special purpose grand jury recommended that 12 officials or contractors be investigated further for criminal wrongdoing, but it recommended just one person be indicted — Ellis.

But grand juries just mirror prosecutorial intentions. If James insists Ellis was the only one the special grand jury recommended indicting, then there could be a good reason for that: The DA’s office brought the most effort to that case.

They say a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. And one could argue that James saved most of his mustard and pickles for Ellis.