Investigators probing $4K check want DeKalb CEO May’s emails

Investigators suspect a fraud conspiracy in the case of a $4,000 check written from a county vendor to interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May, and they want to cull through a year’s worth of May’s emails.

DeKalb police served search warrants Tuesday on the county’s IT department, seeking archived email conversations involving May and two former high-ranking DeKalb officials.

The warrants, from DeKalb Superior Court, allege that the messages may contain information about a conspiracy to defraud the county. Based on the date range of emails sought, the investigation involves May’s dealings with Water Removal Services, an Alpharetta company that made sewer damage repairs at his home in late 2010, then won a $300,000 county contract less than a year later.

Doug Cotter, the man who arranged the home repairs and once organized a campaign fundraiser for May, has told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that the $4,000 check was intended to help May with his personal financial problems.

» DOCUMENT: View the search warrants 

» DOCUMENT: Read Lee May's statement on the warrants

» DOCUMENT: See the order granting sealed filing status

» PHOTOS: A look at DeKalb's criminal convictions, unresolved scandals

But May says he never received the check, knew nothing about it and never received a dollar of the money. He released copies of the warrants to the news media Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by a statement assuring the public of his innocence.

“I share the sentiments of everyone who wants to get to the bottom of corruption and wrongdoing, and these search warrants are a step in this process,” May’s statement said. “Personally, I have nothing to hide; and there will be nothing in my email to suggest I have done anything wrong.”

May referred questions to law enforcement.

The warrants show investigators stepping up the probe into the check just as May has ordered his own special investigators to stand down. Reacting to a succession of scandals earlier this year, May hired former state Attorney General Mike Bowers to root out corruption and malfeasance in DeKalb.

But after Bowers and investigator Richard Hyde characterized the county as “rotten to the core,” May fired back a testy rebuttal and told them to submit a final report by Aug. 26.

That deadline has passed with no report.

The warrants seeking May’s emails were issued under seal by Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson, meaning the public can’t see the affidavits detailing what investigators hope to find nor what the search turns up.

Though Cotter and others said they had been questioned by the FBI, the warrants issued Tuesday were requested by local police and could mean DeKalb District Attorney Robert James would handle any prosecution. James’ office did not respond to an interview request from the AJC.

Copies of the warrants, which May released, say investigators want his emails as well as those of former County Commission Chief of Staff Morris Williams and former Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton.

Walton, a key witness in the conviction of suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, said no investigators have spoken to him about the Water Removal Services affair. He said they won’t find anything incriminating in his emails because all he did was fast-track the $6,500 check to the company for the repairs at May’s home.

“Between Lee and Morris, I don’t know,” Walton said. “But see, Morris Williams was known not to send emails. That was a running joke around the county. He never sent emails. So I don’t think they’re going to be able to see anything between those two.”

The date range of emails sought is from Dec. 13, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2011.

Dec. 13 was the date that a sewer line backup soiled May’s living room floor, during the time when he was still a county commissioner. An AJC/Channel 2 investigation found May didn’t go through the same process of filing a claim and negotiating that other homeowners do.

Instead, he got special treatment, with Cotter arranging repairs by Water Removal Services, a company he shared office space with at the time. Cotter told the AJC and Channel 2 that he dealt only with Morris, a longtime friend.

The AJC and Channel 2 have already examined some of Walton’s emails, which showed that within minutes after the company emailed the bill to the county, Walton had staffers working on the payment. The next day the county issued a check to cover all repair costs, no questions asked.

Walton said someone alerted either him or his staff to be on the lookout for the invoice. He said he can’t recall specifics, but it was likely either Williams or someone from May’s commission office.

“As far as I know, we were just following the procedure of getting something done for a sitting commissioner,” Walton said. “That’s the way we looked at it.”

Soon after that, the company issued a check to May for $4,000. Five months later, the company was awarded a $300,000 county contract to clean up floods and sewage back-flows in residences and businesses throughout the county.

Walton said no one tampered with the bid.

After being asked about the chain of events by the AJC and Channel 2, May asked law enforcement to look into the $4,000 check, saying he may have been the victim of a crime.

Who got the money, if May didn’t? The AJC and Channel 2 followed the trail to Williams, though the details are in dispute.

Cotter said that Williams told him to bill the county for the work. Soon after the county made the payment, Cotter said Williams asked him to help May, who was deep in debt.

So Cotter told the AJC he had the company issue the check. Cotter said he then personally delivered the check to Williams, who later gave it back to him, endorsed, and asked him to cash it for May.

Cotter said he cashed it at a liquor store in Dawsonville his family owns and met Williams at a McDonald’s in Decatur to hand over the money.

Williams abruptly resigned in March, as the FBI was asking questions. He later told the AJC and Channel 2 that Cotter’s account was not accurate. “I did not receive that amount of money from him, for Lee, from Water Removal Services,” Williams said, though he refused to clarify whether he received any money or whether he gave funds to the commissioner.

May said in a previous interview that the signature on the check is not his. A review by the AJC/Channel 2 found what’s on the check appears markedly different than May’s signature on other county documents.

Citizen watchdog Viola Davis, who leads the the DeKalb Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter group, is pleased the investigation continues.

She started getting tips about the work done at May’s house more than a year ago, but her open records requests didn’t yield anything. She said she feared that the law enforcement investigation into the repairs had stalled.

“We know, to a certain degree, that Lee’s hands are not clean,” Davis said. “I think he’s doing everything to show that he’s trying to restore the public trust, even though some of this stuff is starting to point toward him.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.