Lee May, center, and Atlanta United soccer team owner Arthur Blank, right.  The team will build its practice facility behind the DeKalb County jail  because nothing says “New Downtown DeKalb” like a practice soccer field behind a jail.
Photo: BEN GRAY / AJC
Photo: BEN GRAY / AJC

DeKalb’s Million-Dollar Mistake Man gets a corner kick

I was in an 800-year-old Irish castle when my phone dinged. A friend back in Atlanta wanted to know what the heck was going on in DeKalb County. Rotten to the core, he said. Huh?

The cryptic message sent me scurrying to find Wifi in Limerick to learn that special investigators Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde were sticking it to our favorite dysfunctional county.

In a letter to Interim CEO Lee May, Bowers compared the county’s government to over ripe fruit, saying investigators found waste, fraud, theft, possible bribery, sole-source contracts and suggestions of widespread mopery.

Right before I left Atlanta at the end of July, the county was struggling to quell the public’s anger from a massive water outage and commissioners were trying to put the kibosh on this investigation stuff, because, it seems, if you stop looking into corruption it goes away.

Newly minted Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who is in office because of corruption investigations, was part of the four-vote bloc pushing to end such unpleasantness. She and three others voted to hold off paying Bowers & Co., as well as funding a public integrity unit for District Attorney Robert James, because she and the others were tired of the “cloud of investigations.”

One needs a scorecard to keep track of all the sleuthing going on in the state’s fourth most populous county. There’s the FBI, the DA, the Bowers crew and the newly restaffed county ethics board. The latter, I may note, is suitably useless, as it recently found Commissioner Stan Watson guilty of conflict of interest by twice voting to give his employer a county contract. But the board decided the punishment should be a stern look, not a suspension.

Johnson, fresh from election, said that the investigations were “a little overkill. You can only investigate so much. It’s been over three years now, and so for us to move forward, these investigations must come to a conclusion.”

The last column I wrote before leaving for overseas was one describing DeKalb as Bizarro World, the planet from Superman comics where up was down, wet was dry and not getting to the bottom of system-wide malfeasance was the right thing to do.

DuhKalb and Political Science 101

But what may be the Bizarro World Move of the Year was Interim CEO Lee May’s decision to very publicly hire a couple of junkyard dogs, at a very dear price tag, ask them to turn over rocks and then ultimately give those same investigators the bum’s rush before they finish. The investigators complained that county officials had become uncooperative, if not outright obstructionist.

May’s moves should from now on be featured in Political Science 101 books in the “stuff you should not do” chapter.

To make matters worse, as in interesting, county officials sent Bowers packing during a public meeting when the former Georgia attorney General popped in to give commissioners an overview of his four-month investigation. Bowers stomped off after the snub and soon, the rotten-to-the-core letter was hand-delivered and then widely shared through social and not-so-social media.

Dwight Thomas, a very fine lawyer who’s been busy defending rascals caught up in the investigations, said Interim CEO May employed “junior politics” in his handling of what will live on in DeKalb as The Bowers Fiasco.

“My neighbor said Lee May is the Million-Dollar Mistake Man,” said Thomas, referring to the probable final tab billed by Bowers and his investigators.

(Just last week, one of Thomas’ clients, the husband of previously convicted Commissioner Elaine Boyer, was sentenced to prison for his part in scamming the county. “Corruption in DeKalb County is rampant,” a federal prosecutor noted.)

“I think Mike is getting close to something,” Thomas said. “The language in his letter may have been a bit strong but there’s something there. If you ask him to come in and investigate, then make sure your underwear is clean.”

Soccer it to me in Downtown DeKalb

May has said his whities are tidy and he still welcomes a vigorous investigation into the county. He just resents the sweeping, general, accusatory and vague tone of Bower’s letter, one that besmirches thousands of “honest, decent, hard-working and committed county employees.”

To be sure, that Bowers can be a grouch. As I write this, Hyde and Bowers are writing a long tell-all to detail what they found.

But I can see why county officials ran Bowers off from that meeting earlier this month. His finger-pointing righteousness would have ruined what was to be a special day.

DeKalb was getting set that day to celebrate something big happening along the Memorial Drive corridor, a place May hopes will become a New Downtown DeKalb. The newly created Atlanta United soccer team, owned by billionaire Arthur Blank, will build its practice facility behind the jail because nothing says “New Downtown DeKalb” like a practice soccer field behind a jail.

I can almost taste the tapas and locally sourced vegetables that will be served at the cafes springing up in the area.

That openness thing is overrated

The move reeks of a desperate last-minute corner kick (sorry for the awkward soccer metaphor) to get something going there. Until recently, economic development in that area was a new bail bond company, lube business or burger joint.

This, at least, is something. But, as they say, you don’t get something for nothing. The county will pony up $12 million and 41 acres of county land because rich owners of sports teams hate paying for anything on their own. To make the matter more interesting, May & Co. shut down opposition from speaking at the meeting. And two of the three north DeKalb commissioners opposed to the plan complain they never heard anything about the deal until it was already cut.

But I’ve often thought openness is overrated. What’s more important is arithmetic. Four always beats three and if the four South DeKalb commissioners think practice soccer — and the giveaway of land and $12 million to a billionaire — will turn the tide in this woebegone stretch, then they are going to do it no matter how loud the other three howl.

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