Ex-prosecutors: Something smells in DeKalb’s $4K check scandal

The $4,000 payment from a DeKalb County vendor could have been graft, theft - or a setup to embarass a high-ranking official, legal experts said after learning details of an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

Or it could be untraceable cash that investigators will never root out.

In any scenario, it reinforces what other probes into DeKalb County government have already found: a broken government in disarray, criminal law experts said.

You can read the AJC-Channel 2 findings at MyAJC.com.

“This is the way business has been done on multiple levels in DeKalb County for the last 14 years,” former DeKalb District Attorney Bob Wilson said, “and this kind of business is how you hide crimes and enrich people improperly.”

The AJC and Channel 2 found that after Alpharetta-based Water Removal Services did $6,500 in home repair work for then-Commissioner Lee May, at taxpayers’ expense, the company wrote a $4,000 check back to May.

May, now the county’s interim CEO, says he knew nothing about the check and never received a cent of the money.

But the man who handled the money said it was intended to help May with his personal financial problems. May was in bankruptcy at the time, reeling from a failed movie theater business. Then a sewer line clog spewed raw sewage into his living room and garage, damaging floors and baseboards.

Doug Cotter, who once organized a campaign fundraiser for May, arranged the repair work. The former homebuilder was sharing office space with Water Removal Services at the time, and says he asked the company to issue the check, cashed it at a package store owned by his family, then gave the money to former County Commission Chief of Staff Morris Williams.

He did it all at Williams’ direction, Cotter said. Williams disputed his account, but would not elaborate.

The check was endorsed “Lee May,” but May said it's not his signature. May does acknowledge receiving special treatment from the county, which puts homeowners through a claims process before paying for sewer damage repairs, but he says he didn’t realize it at the time.

With the players giving conflicting accounts, and one key player staying tight-lipped, legal experts say the FBI and the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office have a lot of work do to. Investigators should be digging through bank records and comparing handwriting samples, said Allen Moye, a retired federal prosecutor who lives in Decatur.

“At this point, there’s not really any way to say who got the money,” Moye said. “If you’re looking at whether or not to charge criminal behavior, you have to look at the motivations of everyone involved, and the credibility of everybody involved.”

J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County District Attorney who teaches criminal law at Western Carolina University, said that if May accepted a $4,000 gift from a personal friend, that wouldn’t be illegal. Unless investigators prove the money influenced county business, it would just be another situation that smells, Morgan said.

But with May adamant that he didn’t receive the money or know about the check, and with the check made out to him, some crime must have occurred, such as forgery or theft by deception, he said.

“This is just the tip of an iceberg, is my best guess,” Morgan said.

Wilson said the passing of money and the mixing of personal and government business were inappropriate and extremely convoluted, “which makes me think it was trying to be a trail that can’t be followed.”

Wilson represents landscaper Paul Champion in a lawsuit against DeKalb, claiming county officials tried to shake him down and that the county owes him more than $880,000 for his work. In counterclaims, the county accused Champion of overbilling. A special grand jury that probed the water department recommended Champion be investigated for possible criminal infractions, among other people.

Citizen watchdog Viola Davis, who leads the the DeKalb Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter group, wants investigators to stop looking for isolated infractions and approach the DeKalb government as possible organized crime.

Davis 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. Her tipsters never provided the name of the company that did the work.

“If there’s ever a time you needed a RICO investigation, it’s now,” Davis said. “It’s hard to step out and expose stuff like this, especially when you’re dealing with very powerful people.”