South Fulton councilwoman under investigation denies any wrongdoing

Members of the South Fulton city council voted this week to investigate Councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com AJC FILE PHOTO
Members of the South Fulton city council voted this week to investigate Councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com AJC FILE PHOTO

A South Fulton city councilwoman whose colleagues voted this week to investigate her for allegedly directing money outside the county reiterated Thursday that she had done nothing wrong.

“I don’t want y’all to worry about me,” Councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis told attendees at a town hall about economic development. “Your councilwoman did nothing illegal. She acted fiscally responsibly and she acted in good faith.”

Her statement was met with applause from the audience of about 50 people at Welcome All Park.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” one audience member called out, as Willis described her role in an economic development deal at the center of the controversy. “We know where you come from.”

On Tuesday, South Fulton’s city council voted 4-3 to investigate Willis after she supported a tax abatement on a $27 million expansion of Halperns’ Steak and Seafood Co., which is located in the city. The company went to the Development Authority of Fulton County for the deal. Council members said that Willis should have directed the project to the city’s new development authority, instead.

By not doing so, they alleged, Willis cost the city money.

Willis and Al Nash, the director of the county development authority, said Willis did not have anything to do with where the company went for the economic development deal. Nash said the company determined South Fulton’s development authority “was not up, able, ready, moving as quickly.”

The city development authority, just two years old, had its first meeting in May and has not yet completed a deal.

“They came to us because we’ve been in business since about 1972,” Nash said. “We’re up and running.”

Willis said she had not known about the project, and did not do anything to steer the company to the county development authority.

“I don’t get into the middle of development,” she said. “I could go to jail for that.”

The city agreed to spend $180 an hour to investigate Willis. They will meet again Nov. 26.

Leslie Smart, a local resident, said he thought the company’s expansion seemed like a good project for the area.

“I don’t want this project to walk away from South Fulton because of confusion and ignorance,” Willis said.