Fulton let probe of alleged coverup slide

Fulton officials promised an independent probe into whether some county commissioners and the county manager muzzled two workers who uncovered a $180,000 embezzlement scheme.

But an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found no evidence that anyone from any agency has made any meaningful attempt to find out whether top-level officials ordered a coverup, or why those officials might have an interest in keeping a massive theft under wraps.

Three years after the whistleblowers stepped forward, no investigator has ever interviewed them — which would be a first step in any criminal inquiry. Nor has anyone spoken to at least five of the seven commissioners in office at the time the case came to light.

And nothing in either police or prosecutors’ investigative files indicates that other steps were taken to examine the allegations or to refer the case to an outside agency.

Instead, the county’s inquiry seems to have been limited to the theft of funds. The county manager brought in the commission’s own police department to take the lead there. Its investigator zeroed in on one ex-employee: Nicola Hosier.

That case ended quietly in a Fulton County courtroom late this summer, when Hosier pleaded guilty to more than 100 counts of forgery and false statements. She diverted money meant for the homeless and poor into supplies for an event planning business, Exquisite Events Atlanta, which she co-owned with three other Fulton County human services workers.

Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey sentenced her to two years of home confinement and eight years on probation and ordered her to pay $136,000 in restitution.

No trial. No prominent officials implicated.

The only significant action the county has taken has been abolishing its Office of Professional Standards, which discovered the theft scheme. The office was set up to field internal whistleblower complaints, before its investigator, Maria Colon, and her supervisor, Gwendolyn Warren, wound up whistleblowers themselves.

In interviews, District Attorney Paul Howard said he understands the perception that the allegations against commissioners got “swept under the rug,” but insisted that’s not what he did. Backpedaling on previous statements about the matter being over, Howard strongly insinuated that he’s not finished.

“I understand what you’re saying, and I would have the same response,” the DA said. “The thing is, it’s not over.”

But he refused to explain what he’s been doing.

Signs of a coverup?

Colon found out about the embezzlement from an anonymous tip.

When she and Warren realized the scope of the theft, they wanted to bring in law enforcement, according to a September 2010 letter their attorney sent to county officials and copied to Howard.

But, the letter alleged that then-County Manager Zachary Williams, acting on orders from some commissioners, told them to put nothing in writing and to hush up until after November elections. Warren also claimed that Williams relayed a message from Commissioner Emma Darnell: “At Fulton County, we don’t investigate ourselves.”

When the women continued to pursue the case, they claim the county retaliated. Warren, a former deputy county manager, claims Williams forced her to resign from her $160,000-per-year position, telling her, “Certain commissioners want you gone today.”

Colon got demoted to a research position with a $45,000 pay cut. They later filed retaliation lawsuits against the county.

If the women were told by their superiors not to report a crime, that in itself could be a felony — influencing a witness, according to legal experts.

“Multiple people should have been prosecuted,” said attorney A. Lee Parks, who represents Warren and Colon in their lawsuits. “The county contained it and sanitized it.”

Williams has denied trying to quash the case or saying that county commissioners pressured him to do so.

As for the women’s claims of retaliation, Williams, now chief operating officer for DeKalb County, said in an email that “their claims indicating that the personnel actions were related to any investigations are completely untrue.” He declined to otherwise discuss the case with the AJC.

Darnell has refused to talk about the accusations over the years, saying, “What will be said will be said under oath.”

Through their attorney, Colon and Warren also declined to be interviewed for this story.

Keeping it close

At the urging of Commissioner Robb Pitts, in October 2010 the county hired former U.S. Attorney Richard H. Deane Jr. to conduct an independent investigation into whether political pressure squelched Colon’s inquiry.

Pitts said the move was the proper thing to do, signaling “we’re being fair, open, transparent and we want to get to the bottom of this.” The county paid Deane’s law firm $50,000 for the probe.

The AJC found, though, that Deane’s office did not interview Colon or Warren. Five of the seven commissioners at the time also told the AJC that they were not interviewed. (Chairman John Eaves would not talk about the case and Darnell did not return messages.)

Deane said he did not have clearance from the county to discuss his work, but suggested the newspaper find out what specifically he was hired to do. However, the county attorney will not release Deane’s report nor any related correspondence, citing attorney-client privilege.

The women’s allegations aside, documents indicate Williams waited weeks to notify police about the embezzlement.

In early July 2010, Warren informed Williams that because of the scope of the fraud uncovered by Colon, she had decided they “could not sit on this any longer.” On July 27, Colon gave Williams a four-page memo, dated July 27, laying out what she had discovered. The Fulton County Police Department got involved in late August, the investigative file shows, which Assistant Chief Gary Stiles told the AJC was shortly after Williams told him about the internal theft.

Stiles said Williams did not mention any allegations of top-level interference with reporting the crime.

The investigator assigned to the case, Edward Benefield, said he doesn’t recall receiving a copy of the letter detailing allegations against Williams, Darnell and other commissioners.

If he had seen it, Benefield said, he would probably have just assumed Howard was handling that aspect. Benefield said his role was to investigate the theft of county money, not the political implications.

Besides, he said, it would have been inappropriate for Fulton police to look into that, given the obvious conflict of interest.

Only one of the four owners of Exquisite Events was charged, Benefield said, because he couldn’t find proof that the other owners knew Hosier stole money, and no one would testify against anyone else.

“No one, on my side, tried to hinder my investigation,” he said. “If anything, they just wanted to see when I’d be done.”

Three years gone

Howard would give no explanation as to why no one ever talked to Warren and Colon, saying that would be inappropriate. As to why he didn’t call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or Atlanta Police, Howard said he has his own Public Integrity Unit to handle such matters.

After Hosier’s guilty plea, the DA stated there would be no further prosecutions. But now he says that was “inartful” and “too general.” He also said he hopes the AJC will be back to cover the final chapter.

“Only the Hosier case is closed,” he answered repeatedly to a litany of questions about how the case got handled. “Our policy is, we would not make a public announcement about whether or not we are investigating a particular matter.”

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, speaking in general, questioned why a DA would release a case file on a convicted defendant if other charges could be in the works in the same case.

He also said there’s no reason a DA should shy from a claim that commissioners or a county manager tried to block the reporting of crime. Porter has pursued charges against former commissioner Kevin Kenerly in a bribery case. And in DeKalb County, District Attorney Robert James aggressively pursued an indictment of CEO Burrell Ellis.

“I think you’re obligated, in that situation, to take a look,” Porter said. “It seems to me the next logical step would be, why were they trying to do that?”

If Howard feels any political awkwardness about asking such questions, he should turn the case over to an outside agency as soon as possible, said state Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, a persistent critic of the county government who has led efforts to overhaul it.

“If indeed there has not been an investigation into witness tampering and obstruction of justice,” he said, “given the allegations that were made several years ago, I find it alarming.”

Ultimately, the women’s lawsuits may force officials to answer tough questions about the case.

The suits have been tied up in courts for years, as the county tried to get them thrown out. Officials claim the women are just seeking money.

“To allege that other employees engaged in criminal wrongdoing, and to intimate that persons ‘at the highest levels of Fulton County government’ engaged in ‘wrongdoing,’ all in the hopes of extracting payment from the county, is reckless,” said a statement from County Attorney David Ware earlier this month.

But a Georgia Supreme Court decision last week will allow the case to move forward into discovery, including depositions. Parks has said he will seek to depose commissioners and other county officials.

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