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DeKalb investigating ‘allegations’ surrounding $61M sewer contract

A DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management traffic cone is placed along the construction site where a water issue caused a brief outage on Mt. Olive Drive in Decatur, Friday, January 11, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
A DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management traffic cone is placed along the construction site where a water issue caused a brief outage on Mt. Olive Drive in Decatur, Friday, January 11, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

DeKalb County officials are investigating how companies were selected for a $61 million sewer contract that was supposed to be voted on last week by commissioners.

But they aren’t providing specifics about why the county’s recommendations for awarding the contract are now under scrutiny — or who may be in the probe’s crosshairs.

Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams last week asked that county commissioners refrain from acting on recommendations to award the contract, which involves repairing and replacing sewer pipes throughout county, to three different firms. Williams said the county needed at least a two-week delay.

Cathryn Horner, who leads the county’s oft-troubled purchasing department, told commissioners that she “initiated a review” of the vendor selection process after receiving two letters she would only describe as containing “allegations.”

Horner said she felt an investigation was appropriate so the county “can move forward with the recommendation with a clear conscience.”

Neither she nor other officials have provided more information regarding the nature of the allegations. And the county denied The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s open records request for the letters, saying they were “part of an on-going investigation” and not subject to release.

In a statement provided Monday, the county did not offer further details.

“At this time we aren’t going to comment on the internal investigation other than to confirm that purchasing is working with the law department to investigate the information received,” the statement said.

A total of seven firms submitted bids for the $61 million contract, which was put out for bid in December, according to records. The recommendation to commissioners is to split the work among three companies: the Renee Group, Inland Pipe Rehabilitation and Kemi Construction Company. The recommendation calls those firms “the three overall lowest, responsive and responsible bidders.”

The work associated with the contract involves rehabbing or replacing gravity sewer lines in "critical" areas where sewage spills have frequently occurred over the years. It's directly tied to DeKalb's 2010 consent decree with state and federal environmental regulators and is vital to the county's compliance with the Clean Water Act.

If confirmed, any malfeasance in the contract's selection process would be another pock on DeKalb's purchasing and watershed management departments — both of which have well-documented histories of controversy and corruption.

An outside audit released in 2019 found that the purchasing department, which solicits bids from companies vying for lucrative county contracts, was "at high risk for waste, fraud, corruption and abuse."

Horner took over as interim chief procurement officer in February after her predecessor, Talisa Clark, resigned. Clark was featured prominently in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former employee, who alleged supervisors ignored her attempts to highlight conflicts of interest and potential bid-rigging within the department.

Another purchasing department leader, Felton Williams, was reassigned in February.

Leaders from watershed management signed off on the award recommendation for the pending $61 million contract and would oversee the work. Mismanagement and corruption within that department are largely responsible for the the county's lack of progress toward the consent decree, which is currently being renegotiated ahead of the original June 20 deadline that won't be met.

“With all of our procurements we want to proceed in a manner that is above question,” Williams, the COO, said last week. “So we have been willing in the past, and we’ll continue to be willing wherever possible, to stop … and evaluate just to be sure that the recommendations that we’re providing to the commission are appropriate and without any reason for concern.”