Lee May (left), at the time DeKalb County’s interim CEO, greets Stan Watson, at the time a commissioner, before an event on March 14, 2014, in Stone Mountain. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Torpy at Large: DeKalb corruption, or when what’s old is new

For years, former DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson was widely seen as Commissioner Walking Indictment. The question wasn’t if it would happen but when.

The two-term commissioner and former legislator always seemed more than a bit hinky when it came to handling public money.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Photo: AJC

As a commissioner, he voted to award $1.5 million in contracts to a local developer. But there was a problem. He was getting a monthly stipend from that same businessman for “strategic advice.”

He was accused of spending $5,000 in taxpayers’ money for his personal cellphone and using county cash to build a political website, complete with a link for donors to pony up for his election campaign.

Oh, yeah, he also spent $90,000 that he solicited from county contractors and kept in a DeKalb Chamber of Commerce account.

Investigators seemed to be perpetually busy through the years looking at Stan the Man. Indictments were frequently in the offing, the whispers had it. But then nothing.

Former District Attorney Robert James was voted from office last year, partly because voters did not think he was tough enough on corruption in DeKalb. Other voters thought he was overly focused on convicting former CEO Burrell Ellis rather than combating more systemic corruption. (The Ellis conviction was overturned on appeal.)

Sherry Boston, the county solicitor, beat James, vowing she’d be tougher.

So with a new DA in town, Watson found himself finally lining up last week for a mugshot.

Watson is accused of receiving about $3,000 in advance money to travel to conferences. But he never went on the trips. Instead, he resigned from office to run for county tax commissioner — thankfully, voters sent him packing. He didn’t pay back the money until this year when Channel 2 Action News started sniffing around.

Perhaps his indictment on felony theft charges is the first step in Boston meeting her campaign vows.

But this action was tempered by plea deals a week earlier when county contractor Doug Cotter and a former high-ranking DeKalb official, Morris Williams, had their wrists slapped in a strange corruption case.

Here’s how The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summed up the case in 2015:

“An Alpharetta company wrote a $4,000 check to interim CEO Lee May after making $6,500 in sewer damage repairs at his home, at taxpayers’ expense. Later, that company won a $300,000 county contract. May insists he knew nothing about the check and never received any of the money.

“But Cotter, the man who arranged the home repairs and once organized a campaign fundraiser for May, said it was intended to help May with his personal financial problems. Cotter said he gave the money to former County Commission Chief of Staff Morris Williams. The FBI is investigating.”

Sherry Boston and then-District-Attorney Robert James as they participated in a DeKalb County candidates forum on May 5, 2016, in Lithonia. Boston defeated James a few weeks later to become the new district attorney. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Williams and Cotter were indicted in July 2016 on felony theft charges, oddly, two months after DA James lost to Boston.

Two weeks ago, Cotter and Williams 'fessed up. Sort of. Cotter took the hit for misdemeanor theft, paid back the $4,000 but still maintains his innocence. Williams owned up to misdemeanor obstruction.

Boston said cash is hard to trace and the defendants lawyered up. Also, prosecutors didn’t want to expose a confidential witness in the case.

But a question remains: What in the Holy Heck really happened here?

From left: Lee May, Morris Williams and Doug Cotter, along with that $4,000 check. CHANNEL 2 ACTION NEWS
Photo: CHANNEL 2 ACTION NEWS

Assistant DA Chris Timmons told the court what prosecutors were able to glean — apparently, not much.

“What happened to the $4,000 in cash is not clear,” he said, later adding, “It was likely that the money ended up with either Mr. Cotter or Lee May.”

That the $4,000 has been repaid is beside the point. The point is, was that money a bribe?

May, now a preacher starting a church, has said repeatedly he got no kickback.

If prosecutors really thought May did, he should have faced that same mugshot camera that captured Stan Watson’s visage. But if they’re on the fence, then they should just button up.

One can only wonder why the two defendants weren’t squeezed like oranges to get more information, and then forced to go to trial. In fairness, DA Boston inherited the case, so she might have decided simply to dispose of it like last week’s leftover salmon stinking up the back of the fridge.

DeKalb County Interim CEO Lee May responds to a report siting rampant corruption in the county government and calling for his resignation. Video by Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Viola Davis, a nurse who runs a watchdog group, helped the AJC and Channel 2 bring the case of the mysterious $4,000 to light after she repeatedly heard from little birds connected with the county.

She is largely happy with Boston, but added, “These sweetheart deals don’t make it easy for people to believe in the system.”

Davis worries people who come forward with information about possible wrongdoing might get tired of doing so and stop.

Harmel Codi, a former county employee and whistleblower, said corruption “is so deeply rooted. There’s been enabling. You have to go after it full force, no half-stepping.”

As for Watson, he will one day have his day in court. And when he arrives, he’ll be accompanied by his lawyer Robert James — yes, the former DA.

James might be the perfect counsel for the put-upon pol. James is a tough litigator and apparently determined previously that Watson was simply a misunderstood fellow.

James will not say whether as DA he ever investigated Watson. He talked to my colleague Mark Niesse and said the info behind the current charges came to light after he left office, so there is no conflict of interest.

Well, it may not be an official conflict-of-interest case. But it smells like the leftover salmon I referenced earlier.

“I’m a private lawyer now. My job is to further the interest of my clients and advocate on their behalf,” James said. “I don’t know that my time as district attorney has any bearing on what we’re doing, other than that I’m intimately familiar with the criminal justice system and with DeKalb.”

Commissioner Jeff Rader chuckled upon hearing that James is representing Watson.

“Man’s gotta eat,” he said. “But isn’t it ironic? Maybe if Robert had gone after him, he’d still be in office.”

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