A nine-month investigation into questionable Gwinnett County land purchases is expected to conclude this week, and its findings could shed light on relations between local developers and elected officials.
A special grand jury investigating the purchases has scheduled its last meeting Friday. Soon after, its report detailing observations and recommendations is expected to be made public. The panel also might return indictments if members suspect someone of criminal wrongdoing, according to Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.
“They’ve been meeting every other Friday since January,” Porter said. “They’ve gotten a crash course in real estate and how the government operates.”
Last year, Porter asked for a special-purpose grand jury to be impaneled after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of stories detailing five questionable purchases of parkland and one purchase that was scuttled. The stories exposed cozy relationships between developers and commissioners and uncovered inflated appraisals the purchases were based on.
Gwinnett County taxpayers may have overpaid millions of dollars for land that has yet to be developed into parks. Commissioner Kevin Kenerly championed two of the deals, and Chairman Charles Bannister, Lorraine Green and Shirley Lasseter each advocated for one. In each case, the individual commissioners acknowledged connections to the developers or others involved in the deal.
The properties were:
● Beaver Ruin Road and I-85 near Norcross, 36.79 acres at a purchase price of $4.65 million.
● Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Sugar Hill, 66.6 acres at a purchase price of $13.95 million.
● Rabbit Hill Road and Hurricane Shoals Road in Dacula, 90.56 acres purchased for $16.26 million.
● Givens Road between Dacula and Grayson, 33.19 acres at a purchase price of $2.29 million.
● Lakes Parkway in Lawrenceville, 13.37 acres at a purchase price of $1.16 million.
In one of the more controversial purchases, commissioners in 2007 voted to buy the land off Rabbit Hill Road to be used for a park with athletic fields. Kenerly pushed for the deal at a purchase price of $16.26 million. Property records show that two years before, the developer, David Jenkins, had bought the land for $8.9 million. Kenerly has acknowledged that he is a friend of Jenkins. The two men also have been involved in three business deals and have gone on several group vacations to Las Vegas together.
At the outset of the special grand jury investigation, Porter said he was particularly interested in “five or six” purchases for parkland in the previous five years.
It will likely be Oct. 21 before the special grand jury’s findings are made public. Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Michael C. Clark will review the report when he returns from vacation Oct. 11. Clark said he will probably seal it for 10 days to give public officials or other people who are singled out a chance to file a response.
In deciding whether to seal the report, Clark said, “I’ll be looking to see how damaging it is, how detrimental it is.”
“Since it addresses public officials, we would like to give them 10 days to file an amendment,” Clark said. “They can’t modify it, but they could amend it.”
Regular grand juries are convened for six months to review hundreds of criminal cases and decide if there is probable cause for prosecution. Special-purpose grand juries, a far less common legal tool, must be impaneled at the request of a public official to focus on a particular issue. Their activities are not restricted by a time limit.
Since grand jury proceedings are confidential, the district attorney did not disclose whether any indictments are forthcoming. Any public officials named in charging documents would already have been notified of the state’s intent to indict them; state law requires a 15-day notice. Public officials must be given an opportunity to appear with an attorney to make a statement before the grand jurors, and they are allowed to listen to the testimony against them.
Lasseter said she knows nothing about what the grand jury will report. “I don’t think any of us do,” she said.
“I think the process has been very fair,” Lasseter said. “I think that’s what the grand jury is for, to investigate and determine the truth.”
Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said Porter asked commissioners to keep the grand jury process confidential, adding, “I’m not saying anything at all about it.”
Other commissioners did not respond to requests for comment.
A special-purpose grand jury has only been convened in Gwinnett County twice before, both times in 1989.
One panel was tasked with investigating evidence of price-fixing on school milk contracts. The other looked into a lavish, county-paid trip to New York by Lillian Webb, who was county commission chairwoman; another commissioner, and 20 others.
In the milk price-fixing case, the jury issued recommendations that became the impetus for seeking indictments from a separate grand jury.
The panel that investigated the New York trip concluded that county officials abused their authority but did not break the law.
Tom Lawler, clerk of the superior court in Gwinnett, was district attorney for the county two decades ago when the last special purpose grand juries were formed.
Lawler expects high public interest in the outcome of the investigation, especially as the November elections approach.
Two of the commission’s five seats are open this year, as Kenerly and commissioner Bert Nasuti have announced they do not intend to seek re-election.
“Most people I know are very concerned about the way the county spends its money and the budget constraints we’re under now,” Lawler said. “Y’all have run articles that said we paid a lot more money than we should have for that land, and I think the public is interested because it’s our money.”
Sabrina Smith, who chairs a nonpartisan citizen group called Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government, said she was pleased that Porter impaneled the special grand jury.
“We were hoping not that he would find something, but hoping that he would find the truth,” Smith said. “And if something was there, that somebody would be held accountable.”
Staff writer Tim Eberly contributed to this article.
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