In DeKalb's Bizarro World, up is down, wet is dry

Contractor Alessandro Salvo jumped into a wet mess to help DeKalb County fix a huge water spill. But, he says, no good deed goes unpunished. Bill Torpy/AJC photo

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Contractor Alessandro Salvo jumped into a wet mess to help DeKalb County fix a huge water spill. But, he says, no good deed goes unpunished. Bill Torpy/AJC photo

The contractor in the vortex of the water break that left DeKalb County dry and fuming, grasped for words when asked to sum up the county that keeps punching itself in the face.

“It’s … it’s a Bizarro World,” said Alessandro Salvo. “It has it’s own set of rules. It’s a Bizarro Government.”

Salvo, an effusive and easily irked fellow who digs holes in streets for a living, was referring to the alter world in Superman comics where up is down, funny is sad, bad is good, a world whose code was: “Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!”

DeKalb’s mission statement is not that — yet.

Salvo, the CEO of G.S. Construction, knows DeKalb well; he’s a resident who has poured sidewalks, installed water lines and built curbs there.

He and his father, Mike, also worked undercover for the FBI to help convict two crooked county inspectors. And then, he said, the county’s shady former contract procurement director retaliated against them for that. But more on that later.

On the water episode, Salvo said he expected a word of thanks from the county for plugging last weekend’s water leak. Instead, he got e-scolded by watershed director Charles Lambert.

In an email, Lambert accused Salvo’s company of showing up Friday unprepared to fix the massive leak, allowing the situation to grow from annoyance to large-scale cluster cluck.

“As it stands now, if the correct equipment had been brought to the job the situation would have been resolved then,” Lambert wrote. “The repair method chosen failed, so this failure and corrective action is on the contractor to resolve.”

The mess started Thursday near Tucker when a mower hit a fire hydrant, which was attached to a 48-inch water main, which apparently feeds pretty much the whole darn county. The episode became a slow-motion disaster because it took two attempts to fix the line, leaving tens of thousands of toilets unflushed and four days of boil orders before things were back to normal Monday.

The contractor was having none of what Lambert was serving. “I hope this is some kind of joke,” the aptly named Salvo responded. “You are responsible to compensate GS Construction fully for saving your bacon.”

And, in closing, he said, “I have never been so insulted in my life. I have been saying since Friday night that I KNEW DeKalb County would try and blame me for the problem and not pay GS Construction. Every time I help DeKalb County the answer from the County is to punch us in the face.”

Salvo admitted to being punch drunk from a lack of sleep when he fired off his response, which he also forwarded to commissioners and our friends at WSB TV.

County workers, he told me, called him Friday “in a panic because they realized they were in over their heads.”

Salvo said they asked him to advise the county crews on the scene. In his version, the county didn’t have the right equipment on hand, and it tried a stop-gap repair against his wishes on Saturday that didn’t work. Once the county brought the water presssure back up, all that clean DeKalb water went everywhere except where it was supposed to go. Another try on Sunday worked after Salvo’s and county crews dug down 15 feet to deal with the 40-year-old pipes, he said.

Lambert would not say anything Tuesday when I asked him about Salvo’s version. Burke Brennan, the guy paid to answer such questions, said DeKalb officials are trying to dig to the bottom of this mess. He said watershed officials turned the water on again Saturday morning because hospitals can’t be left dry.

Interim CEO Lee May said the county is looking for a new watershed director, who is also an interim.

Tuesday morning, Salvo was downtown Decatur, where his crews were installing a new streetscape. His business, a dad-and-son operation with 30 workers, has done work in Gwinnett and Cobb counties, Dunwoody and several other metro Atlanta entities.

So why bother with DeKalb?

“Because they have the biggest jobs and they have a lot of them coming up,” he said, referring to the $1.35 billion capital improvement project to revitalize the county’s creaky system.

The watershed department is a cash cow that was also the starting point of a grand jury investigation that dug into alleged corruption there and pivoted to snag (and convict) CEO Burrell Ellis on charges of perjury and attempted extortion.

Salvo knows first-hand about all that. DeKalb Public Works inspectors some four years ago tapped him as a potential cash cow of their own. His crews were replacing sidewalks along South Hairston Road when an inspector started giving them trouble, threatening to shut them down.

Neacacha Joyner, according to the feds and Salvo, hit him up for a $500 loan. Later, in 2011, Joyner told the contractor, “Let me think like a crook. I think you’re a crook, too. I need $18,000.”

She devised a way for the contractors to put in phony bills for nonexistent work — for instance, installing fire hydrants — and they’d split the difference.

“They had a system; they had no fear,” Salvo told me. “They get you to do a crime with them first, then you’re in trouble, too. Then you get in deeper and deeper.

“The money was there for the taking. It was there for them to steal. Simple as that.”

But instead of getting dirty, the Salvos went to the FBI and worked, according to the feds, as “good Samaritan confidential sources.”

In the end, Joyner and Fidelis Ogbu, another Public Works supervisor, ended up in the federal pokey.

So all’s good. Right?

Not really. Remember, this is Bizarro World.

In 2012, Salvo was low bidder on a project to replace water lines near the Tucker area. But when it was time to get commission approval, county staff members recommended two other companies, costing taxpayers $270,000 more.

He appealed to contracts director Kelvin Walton, the unindicted co-conspirator and star witness in the Ellis case, and was told his company was kicked out by a technicality. Salvo went public, on Facebook, to community groups, wherever he could, claiming he was a victim of retaliation for working with the feds.

A judge agreed that the Salvos should get the business.

On Tuesday, he walked from the construction site to the county board meeting to see if there was any response.

While walking there, I asked him whether he fears losing business for being so mouthy.

He shook his head.

“I don’t worry about it. They can’t take work away from us for doing what’s right.”