Morrow city official ruffled feathers at times

John Lampl, creator of failed Morrow complex, ruled with heavy hand, critics say.

John Lampl has spent most of his working life fixing things. As a young man, he repaired air conditioners among other duties for Clayton County Public Schools. As a Morrow city official, he dispatched city workers for debris removal from elderly residents’ yards. The Morrow resident used that handyman trait to become a political fixture in his town of 6,500.

Pete McQueen, Clayton County Water Authority chairman, a neighbor of Lampl’s who has known him since the latter was a teenager, witnessed the man’s rapid ascension.

“He did a lot of good things,” McQueen said. “John was well-liked, especially among the elderly. One of the things that made him well-liked is that, if they had problems, he’d help take care of them.”

Lampl, 46, has his own problems now. He faces up to 45 years in prison for his actions in creating Olde Towne Morrow, a now-defunct retail village that has cost millions. Lampl is alleged to have built the complex near Southlake by circumventing state building codes, notably awarding contracts without properly soliciting bids.

On Wednesday, Lampl pleaded not guilty to eight criminal counts involving perjury, making false statements, and conspiracy in restraint of free and open competition. He declined to comment when asked about his circumstances. His trial is set for late November.

During his two-decade political career in Morrow, Lampl held every major government post, including city manager, a job that enabled him to oversee Olde Towne Morrow. Yet Lampl often ruled with a heavy hand, punishing those who dared question him. His hands were literally on everything in dealing with Morrow, too.

Until 2009, it was not uncommon for Lampl to record the minutes at City Council meetings and destroy the tapes once the minutes had been transcribed, City Clerk Evyonne Browning said. Many of the minutes were vague and inconsistent, and often had no supporting documents, she said.

“And knowing they were recorded and then the tapes were destroyed raises a lot of red flags,” Browning said.

Interviews with nearly a dozen current and former Morrow officials and residents regarding Lampl portray a man who could be charming one minute and tyrannical the next. He gained city officials’ trust to the point that Morrow sent him to school to obtain advanced degrees. Even as Olde Towne Morrow’s problems came to light and Lampl was moved to various positions, he managed to keep his hands in city affairs.

However, Olde Towne Morrow, the historic retail village supposed to draw travelers from I-75, proved to be Lampl’s political undoing and unveiling. In building it, Lampl boasted he could out-debate and outlast city development officials to get what he wanted, and that he only told the Downtown Development Authority members “what they want to hear,” his colleagues said. He also browbeat people.

“John is a charismatic person when he wants to be,” Morrow Mayor Jim Millirons said. “He changes to something else when he’s dealing with employees. He’s very threatening and demanding.”

Lampl’s management style became so oppressive that city finance director Dan Defnall, often the target of Lampl’s rants, filed a grievance last year against the then-city councilman for creating a hostile work environment. Defnall said he had tried to warn Lampl of the need to reconsider commitments made and identify true costs regarding Olde Towne Morrow, to no avail.

“He refused to heed my warning,” Defnall said. “He didn’t provide detailed budgets and plans up front. That led to cost overruns and unexpected costs, and that totaled well into the millions.”

Long after he was removed as city manager, Lampl could be difficult. Defnall told of approaching Lampl, now the Morrow economic development director, on behalf of the new city manager regarding Olde Towne Morrow, and encountering more resistance.

“We tried to meet with John,” Defnall recalled. “He’d become uncooperative and belligerent.”

Lampl next joined the City Council and continued his attacks on Defnall, the mayor and other city officials, the city finance manager said. It wasn’t until Defnall filed his grievance that Lampl came under scrutiny for Olde Towne Morrow, and city officials ultimately pushed to have him removed from office.

The city still owes about $9 million of the $10 million bond taken out to finance Olde Towne Morrow, Defnall said.

City officials said while Lampl demanded strict accounting from people when he was in office, Lampl wasn’t always forthcoming with them.

“We were forever discussing accountability and procedures, and then we’d get partial information,” Millirons said. “I’m told he gave us exactly the information he wanted us to have. Financial reports that were given to us were significantly different than the actual situation.”

Millirons also experienced the other man’s wrath earlier this year when he asked Lampl about Olde Towne Morrow. Millirons said Lampl grew angry and hurled obscenities at him before leaving the room.

“He really talked to me like a dog,” Millirons said. It was an about-face from someone whom Millirons said he once trusted and viewed like a son.

In summer 2009, Millirons said he and other city officials began suspecting things weren’t right with Olde Towne Morrow. They learned the complex was fitted with residential water sprinklers rather than a commercial system, and no feasibility studies, market analysis or budget plan had been done for the project.

“The reports just didn’t look right,” Millirons added. “He never brought the contracts to us as he should have.”

An independent audit sided with Defnall’s charges of workplace abuse, and brought other conclusions. The audit found that Lampl’s conduct toward Defnall was “motivated, at least in part, by retaliation for Defnall’s disclosure of certain financial information to the mayor and City Council reflecting poorly on Lampl’s tenure as city manager and economic development director, and by a desire to undermine Defnall’s credibility with regard to such disclosures.” Lampl’s political career soon came to an end and his legal troubles mounted.

Awaiting trial, Lampl is rarely seen around town now, a far cry from when he was a Morrow fixture, and, as one city official joked, “He was in everybody’s business.”


Lampl’s rise and fall

January 1991: John Lampl joins Morrow City Council.

October 1992: Becomes Morrow city manager.

July 2009: Removed as city manager and moved to economic director of Morrow Downtown Development Authority.

November 2009: Olde Towne Morrow opens.

March 2010: Lampl resigns as DDA’s economic director after winning a City Council seat in special election.

June 2010: Lampl accused by city finance director Dan Defnall of creating hostile work environment.

August 2010: City launches independent probe into Defnall’s charges, later leading to the uncovering of code violations at Olde Towne Morrow.

November 2010: Independent panel sides with Defnall on charges against Lampl.

December 2010: Olde Towne Morrow closes.

May: Lampl ousted from City Council.

June: Grand jury indicts Lampl on 16 counts that involve circumventing state building laws and competitive bids; Lampl is arrested.

September: Lampl is re-indicted on various charges involving perjury, false statements and circumventing state building laws.

Oct. 26: During his arraignment, Lampl pleads not guilty.