DeKalb brushed off concerns about politically-connected developer

When Vaughn Irons got clearance to double as a DeKalb County official and a county contractor, some employees tried to put a stop to it.

The objections they raised about conflicts of interest, though, got brushed aside by the county's higher-ups.

Baffled members of a bid evaluation committee demanded an explanation, but they were instructed by contracting officials to put Irons’ company in the mix of firms vying for federal stimulus funds. A financial officer put her suspicions of collusion into a formal written grievance, and she says she personally implored interim CEO Lee May to step in. But, she said, he told her Irons’ contract was a “non-issue.”

No one, it seems, was willing to root out how, exactly, a sitting DeKalb Development Authority board member would be exempt from an ethics code that says the county government can’t do business with its own officials.

It turns out that Irons’ ticket was an invalid, possibly forged, legal document, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News discovered. Someone got their hands on a draft of a proposed Ethics Board opinion — a work in progress by the board’s attorney at the time — and passed it off as official to the DeKalb department that oversees contracts.

Irons’ company, APD Solutions, went from a disqualified bidder to the winner of a $1 million contract to rehab foreclosed homes.

That document is the latest sign of deep-seated malfeasance within DeKalb’s government, viewed as being so tainted that virtually all the remaining unincorporated areas are trying to distance themselves by forming cities. The state Legislature may soon impose changes to the county’s ethical and purchasing practices.

The relationships between Irons and certain high-level officials also raise questions about how sincere the county’s leaders are about closing the door to potential abuse.

Last year, Irons co-chaired a task force set up by May to propose reforms — the very ones state lawmakers are considering. And he plays a lead role in the interim CEO’s initiative to recruit business and jobs.

All along, Irons has been making monthly payments to a sitting commissioner, Stan Watson, to serve as his consultant. Watson didn’t disclose the arrangement when he twice shirked ethical guidelines to vote on APD’s contracts and when he aided Irons’ controversial plan to develop a resort and casino-style entertainment center in south DeKalb, the AJC and Channel 2 found.

“This man is very well respected, and has been for many, many years,” Viola Davis, a citizen watchdog, said of Irons. “What do you do when even the people that are respected are caught up in controversies like this?”

Irons is a man with friends in high places within the DeKalb government. Processes were circumvented. An insider’s club reigned.

The right friends

Irons has disavowed knowledge of the questionable document’s origin and how it got into the county’s files.

That would mean someone either did Irons a favor or made a whopping clerical mistake.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Irons said. “I think there’s another plausible reason why this could have happened, and it could be processes and mismanagement.”

The document bears the signature of the former Ethics Board chairman, who said he doesn't recall signing it and doesn't know why he would have. It's also numbered opinion 15 in handwriting above a blank line. An unrelated opinion 15 was officially filed with the clerk's office more than a year later.

The matter has May’s attention now. This past week, the DeKalb County district attorney asked the county government for all documents turned over to the AJC and Channel 2 in their investigation, and May said he’s cooperating.

On Saturday, May announced that he will try to remove Irons from the Development Authority, along with the rest of the board. The County Commission must approve the replacements, whom May will name within the next month, spokesman Burke Brennan said.

“I think the narrative you are putting together regarding this is a bit troubling,” May told the AJC. “We want to eliminate even the appearance of impropriety, because we’re seeking to rebuild the public’s confidence in the work that we do.”

The AJC and Channel 2 found no evidence tying Watson to the questionable document. But as Irons was trying to smooth the way for his casino-style Panola Slope resort, off Covington Highway, Watson collaborated with Irons on a proposed ordinance regulating coin-operated amusement machines. Watson also issued proclamations touting Irons.

“We as a community,” said a June 8, 2012 proclamation, “recognize and acknowledge the fearless spirit of CEO Vaughn Irons as he paved the way for the development of Panola Slope and for the myriad of contributions that he made to the advancement of the lives of citizens who call DeKalb County home.”

Irons said he didn’t pay the commissioner for help with his business interests in DeKalb County. “I think these are all things Mr. Watson would have done for any business, and likely has done for any business,” he said.

Watson hasn’t been the only high-ranking county official in Irons’ corner.

His political connections in DeKalb go back to two past administrations. In 2007, then-CEO Vernon Jones appointed Irons, a national director at the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac), to the DeKalb Development Authority. Irons stayed on the board after Burrell Ellis was elected as CEO in 2008.

Irons first tried to bid for a piece of DeKalb’s multi-million dollar grant through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program in 2009, the same year he left Freddie Mac and formed APD Solutions. But he got deflected by an opinion written by Assistant County Attorney Terri Gordon, who said the ethics code barred Irons from being both a member of the government and a government contractor.

Irons tried to get an opinion in his favor from the county’s Ethics Board, the final decision-maker on such issues. But a search of records, and polling of current and former board members, found the board never took a vote.

While Irons was still shut out of bidding, in late 2011, Ellis made a call on his behalf, former Purchasing and Contracting Director Kelvin Walton told the AJC.

Walton, who had sent a letter to Irons telling him he couldn’t bid, said his boss wanted to know why APD was being excluded, arguing that Irons didn’t have a conflict.

“My response was that he has a conflict because he’s serving on one of the committees,” Walton recalled, referring to Irons’ membership on the Development Authority. “And then he said, ‘Fine, fine.’ He said, ‘But I don’t think it’s a conflict.’”

Walton said he later got a call from Ellis’ chief of staff, Jabari Simama, who made a similar argument.

Reached by phone and asked about the APD contract, Ellis — suspended in 2013 after he was accused of shaking down contractors for contributions — said he was at a doctor’s appointment and would call back. He never did, and he and his attorney didn’t return messages. Simama also did not return calls.

Irons said he didn’t ask for Ellis’ help and doesn’t know why he would make a call on his behalf. He maintains that regardless of what transpired, he did not have a conflict of interest in bidding for housing redevelopment work.

“If we would have been disqualified, that would have been an injustice,” Irons said.

Suddenly eligible

When Walton sent word to the bid committee to score APD’s proposal, some members could hardly believe what they were hearing, meeting minutes show.

They had already rejected APD outright and whittled five other bidders down to three. Now, they would have to redo scoring to consider APD and give the company an interview.

Committee member and Community Development Director Chris Morris asked Walton’s department to come explain how APD could be eligible. The purchasing department sent a deputy director, Debra Brewer, to the next meeting.

Committee member Allen Mitchell, a Community Development assistant director, asked how APD could be deemed qualified to bid, without the county lawyers’ input. Another member, Amanullah Saify, “expressed concerns about the Committee’s purpose in the process,” meeting minutes say.

In response, Brewer “recommended that the Committee continue its review of the APD Solutions proposal.”

She told the AJC and Channel 2, though, that she was following her boss' instructions and had the same concerns as the committee. "I think it was a clear-cut ethical violation that couldn't be overcome," Brewer, who now works for Clayton County, said recently.

The committee ranked APD fourth, and decided to hand the top two bidders contracts for $1.6 million each.

That decision also got changed. Amid concerns that the county could miss a federal deadline to spend NSP funds, the commission, on the Community Development Department’s recommendation, gave the third- and fourth-place bidders contracts for $1 million each. The money came out of a different NSP grant than the one they had bid for.

Then, nine months later, the commission approved handing APD — and only APD — another $500,000, also from the other NSP pot. The company had submitted a proposal to rehab houses in another neighborhood, but the project never came to fruition and APD never received the extra money.

In a 2013 grievance filed with the county, former Community Development Financial Officer Harmel Codi said the department disregarded procedures by giving companies money that they hadn’t actually bid for.

In a six-page letter, in which she mostly complained about Director Morris’ management style, she described being ordered to draft APD’s contract amendment for the additional half million dollars, and being ignored when she questioned how such an amount could be awarded without a procurement process.

Contacted by the AJC, Codi said that before quitting the county, she met with May, who had recently ascended to the interim CEO position, to express her concerns.

May denied telling her APD’s contract was a “non-issue,” but he said their talk came amid hundreds of meetings, and Codi had a litany of complaints about the department.

“We didn’t put a whole lot of energy into that, because again, this was one of many, many concerns,” he said. “Hindsight being 20/20, of course, yeah, I could look at it differently now.”

Tennessee and a blind eye

May, like his predecessors, put faith in Irons. Last March, following AJC reports about then-Commissioner Elaine Boyer's criminal misuse of a government-issued Visa card, May established a special task force to examine DeKalb government. Meeting minutes show May tapped Irons to chair a subcommittee to examine possible government reforms. (May's spokesman says he only suggested Irons for the role.)

That same month, May elevated Irons to a lead role in an initiative to bring jobs to the county, announcing that the Development Authority Irons was now chairing would be responsible for implementing tax credit and loan programs and for creating a new business alliance.

Irons appears to have kept the interim CEO’s confidence even after May learned late last year that the Panola Slope resort could benefit from initiatives Irons was pushing at the Development Authority.

Last spring, Irons and a group of other DeKalb officials spent more than $11,000 in taxpayer money to visit the resort cities of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to study ways to promote tourism. May had been scheduled to go but had to back out because of schedule conflicts.

Irons, as Development Authority chairman, has also been pushing for a "tourism megasite" designation covering about two-thirds of the county. The proposal was part of an economic development plan presented to the county in August. According to a document obtained from the Development Authority, the megasite could position retail businesses to receive job tax credits.

Plans for what Irons will call “Panola Resort” include four retail boutiques.

Irons characterized the megasite as a marketing effort to bolster the Memorial Drive corridor leading to Stone Mountain. Though the proposed boundaries currently include the Panola property, he said a map hasn’t been finalized.

“I’m not the driver of that, any other than many other stakeholders,” Irons said.

Former Ethics Board Chairman Isaac Blythers said May’s silence until now doesn’t bode well for the improvements promised to residents. “It raises the question: Are they really serious about what they say they’re doing?” Blythers said. “And this reform, is it just a lot of talk?”

Current Ethics chair John Ernst said reforms might have to come from outside the county.

“What we have right now,” Ernst said, “is unsustainable.”