‘Stigma of corruption’ haunts DeKalb

The road to DeKalb County is paved with good intentions.

DeKalb is creating a new strategic plan to help bring in new businesses because governments and businesses love strategy. It’s a process that helps build laser focus. And it creates jobs to study such stuff.

The consultants compiling this Roadmap to Prosperity first came up with a market assessment to weigh the troubled county’s strengths and weaknesses. Listing weaknesses is important because one must know what is broken to fix it. Those breakdowns in DeKalb have been on continuous display: high crime, a plummeting tax digest, slow job creation, racial division, problematic schools, and, maybe most notable, “the stigma of political corruption.”

So, a key to convincing businesses to think about moving to the county is to forge a new image in which the Google search terms “corruption” and “DeKalb” aren’t synonymous.

DeKalb hired a Texas firm, Angelou Economics, to compile this report. To help get hired, Angelou partnered with The Collaborative Firm, a local company headed by former Fulton County Commissioner Michael Hightower. Hightower, the minority contractor who got $50,000 for his work, is a guy who knows his stuff, a policy wonk who is plugged in to local pols and was president of the National Association of Counties.

But for years, Hightower has been the face of something else to new Georgia commissioners – he’s a cautionary tale of a corrupt commissioner going down. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to accepting nearly $25,000 in bribes to help a crooked businessman win government contracts.

DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader remembers going to the government boot camp all newly elected commissioners must attend at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. At the seminar, the newbies watched a grainy security videotape shot at a Red Lobster showing a man passing a cash-stuffed newspaper to another fellow.

“It showed him receiving the newspaper and looking at the money,” Rader recalled. “Then it said, ‘Don’t let this happen to you.’”

The man caught on film was Hightower, who at the time was a man with a big political upside. But after his impromptu filming he had little option but to plead guilty and take his medicine. He did his six months and shortly after his release created the Collaborative Firm and ended up garnering government and public-private business, notably in south metro Atlanta.

“He’s a story of hope and turning over a new leaf, a story of redemption,” said Burke Brennan, who is DeKalb County’s spokesman. “I’ll continue to believe that until proven otherwise.”

The “otherwise” Brennan stuck in his endorsement was a reference to grand jury testimony in a corruption investigation in which Hightower’s name was mentioned in conjunction with mysterious money being exchanged. This is the investigation that led to the arrest of DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, who is accused of illegally steering contracts.

In the testimony, Ellis’ assistant, Nina Hall, told the grand jury she took money from the county’s contracts director, Kelvin Walton, who has admitted skulduggery and is flipping on Ellis. The money Hall received, she said, was to help her deal with some sort of “situation.”

“Well, I mean my friend Kelvin he gave me some money to help me out of something and he did say he got it from some of his friends,” Hall testified. Walton told her the money came from two county contractors, she testified, and she said she believes one of them was Hightower.

Hall, who is now suspended (with pay), sat on multiple selection committees that recommended which firms should get county contracts. She did not serve on the committee that awarded the contract in which Hightower was involved.

Reached by phone, Hightower denied any wrongdoing this time around. But he said can’t talk much about the contract, since he is a subcontractor.

“As one who understands challenges and obstacles often associated with politics and business, I recognize the importance of moving forward and not dwelling in the past, as it stunts growth and doesn’t provide a path towards the future,” he said in an email.

Angelous Angelou, the Texas consultant, said Hightower and another contractor “provided at least 100 pages of background information and supplemental work” to his report.

Angelou can’t remember exactly how Hightower, who has received at least five other DeKalb contracts, arrived on his radar. He said Hightower’s firm was on a list of more than 100 companies DeKalb provided him as potential minority or local partners. Angelou was impressed by Hightower’s aggressive pursuit of the work and said he has done a very adequate job. "I'd hire him again," he said.

Brennan said Hightower’s firm is a legitimate, qualified bidder that went through the process fairly. “The rules should be applied to everyone equally,” Brennan said, adding the company got no special consideration to win the bid.

The grand jury revelations did not come out until early this year, Angelou said, after most of the work was complete. I asked Angelou whether he knew of Hightower’s past.

“He mentioned it during our second visit, as we were having dinner,” Angelou said. “I was shocked to find out. He actually brought it up. He said, ‘I served my time. It was in the past.’ ”

Oh, at least he’s upfront about it, I said, he let you know before you guys got the contract, right?

No, Angelou responded. It came after they inked the contract.

During their dinner, Angelou told his new partner, “The perception of political corruption (in DeKalb) is very significant.” Then he added, almost as a joke, “You haven’t done anything, have you?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I have,” Hightower said.

“Obviously, had I known about this in the very beginning, we might have had second thoughts,” he said. “I don’t know what happened in the past, but I trust their work.”

Viola Davis, a nurse who runs a thorn-in-the-side-of-DeKalb org called Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter, this month filed a complaint with the DeKalb Ethics Board calling for many things, including firing Nina Hall and Kelvin Walton. In her complaint, Davis details the grand jury testimony concerning Hightower.

“You can’t do business when you have people who are in the middle of controversy,” she said in an interview. “This is tainting some well-put-together initiatives in DeKalb. You can’t overlook (Hightower) is in the middle of a new controversy.”

It’s unfair to call whatever Hightower is or is not involved in as a new controversy. Because in DeKalb, there is always something newer. Just this week, a witness in a federal corruption trial in South Carolina said he was told DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson could help his construction company get a piece of the county’s $1.7 billion water and sewer project for a price. The price was to be $50,000 or $60,000, and the other guy, the contracts manager flipping on Ellis, was to get Falcons tickets.

Watson has denied any involvement and no evidence has been presented that shows he took money.

Told of this new development, Angelou, the Texas consultant charged with helping the county, was silent on the other end of the phone.

“Wow,” he finally said. “That’s all I can say.”