Widening probe stains Gwinnett reputation

New details of a federal investigation paint a troubling picture of corruption deeply embedded in Gwinnett County - allegations that may undermine the county’s previously sterling reputation as an economic dynamo.

Bribery allegations have now embroiled two county commissioners, a planning commissioner and a zoning board member.

Court records prosecutors filed last week say Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, who has been convicted and sentenced for taking bribes in a real estate project, also schemed to sell her vote on privatizing Briscoe Field and considered a bribe to appoint someone to the county airport authority.

Economic development experts say the corruption scandals could affect Gwinnett’s economic development efforts if the problem is pervasive. And residents worry their previously admired county has suffered a tremendous black eye.

“This is a county that’s been so successful and so energetic and progressive,” said former Gwinnett planning commissioner Paula Hastings. “We have so many things to be proud of, and (now) this is what we’re known for.”

Gwinnett’s fall from grace has been fast and dramatic.

Just a few years ago it drew attention for luring Fortune 500 companies like NCR and for its nationally acclaimed school system. A population explosion and a real estate boom made it one of the fastest-growing counties in the country.

But the seeds of its undoing already were planted as allegations of cronyism came under scrutiny.

Suspicious land purchases led to a 2010 grand jury investigation that concluded county commissioners spent millions of dollars too much in deals that benefited political allies at the expense of taxpayers. Then-Commissioner Kevin Kenerly was indicted on a bribery charge alleging a $1 million payoff scheme.

Kenerly denies the charge, which is still pending. The grand jury also considered a perjury charge against then-commission chairman Charles Bannister, who resigned in 2010 to avoid prosecution.

Last May came another bombshell: Lasseter resigned after admitting she took $36,500 from an undercover FBI agent to vote for a Boggs Road real estate development. According to court records, she and her son, John Fanning - whom she appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals - pledged to use their positions to win approval of the project.

Lasseter pleaded guilty to bribery. Fanning and Hall County businessman Carl “Skip” Cain admitted they participated in the bribery scheme and also pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. A federal judge sentenced Lasseter to 33 months in prison Wednesday. Fanning and Cain will be sentenced Sept. 18.s

More dominoes in the federal corruption probe began falling last week, when prosecutors filed a bribery charge against developer Mark Gary. They say Gary paid Lasseter and Fanning $30,000 in casino chips in 2009 for Lasseter’s vote for a waste transfer station Gary wanted to develop. Gary is expected to plead guilty to the bribery charge and is cooperating with investigators.

One of Lasseter’s first acts upon taking office in January 2009 was to appoint Gary – a longtime friend – to the Municipal-Gwinnett County Planning Commission, which would pass judgment on his development plans, including the waste transfer station off Winder Highway.

“I thought it was a conflict of interest, him being there and having applications at the same time,” said Hastings, who served on the commission with Gary. When the transfer station came up for review, the planning commission was unable to make a recommendation because Gary and two other commissioners abstained.

The Board of Commissioners approved the project 3-1 in April 2009, though it was never built. Gary’s alleged payment to Lasseter and Fanning came that June.

Another company, Advanced Disposal Services, tried and failed in 2004, 2006 and 2007 to win commission approval for waste transfer stations the county’s planning staff supported.

But the company apparently lacked what Gary had: Close ties to county commissioners.

“It’s almost like the people that abide by the rules and try to do things the right way don’t win,” said Steve Edwards, Advanced Disposal’s Georgia marketing manager. “The people that bend the rules, they’re the ones that wind up winning.”

Prosecutors say Lasseter was willing not just to bend the rules but to ignore them:

— They say she and Fanning tried to enlist the undercover FBI agent in a scheme to sell her vote on privatizing the county airport and allowing commercial passenger flights, one of the biggest decisions facing the County Commission over the past two years. Lasseter and her son allegedly asked the agent to help them acquire a personal interest in the business generated by an airport expansion. Court records say no money changed hands. Commissioners voted unanimously in June to reject privatizing the airport.

— Lasseter and the agent also discussed whether she could appoint an associate of the agent to the Gwinnett County Airport Authority, court records say. Although no appointment was made, the associate gave Cain $1,500 to give Lasseter for the appointment.

The allegations shocked residents accustomed to seeing Gwinnett in a more favorable light.

“It is so disheartening to learn that so many Gwinnett County elected officials lost their moral compass and succumbed to greed,” said Linda Autry of Lilburn.

Jeffrey Finkle, president of the International Economic Development Council, said corruption can scare off business prospects if it’s pervasive.

“I could point to small communities where you didn’t know where you could find an honest official in town,” Finkle said. “Those are the cities that are going to be routinely skipped by everybody.”

It remains to be seen how pervasive corruption has become in Gwinnett County.

More revelations are likely. Lasseter, Fanning and Hall all have been secretly recording conversations for the FBI over the past year. Gary has been cooperating with authorities since December.

Gary’s attorney, Paul Kish, said last week that “an honest developer can’t do business in Gwinnett County.”

County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash disputes that. She said the commissioners accused of wrongdoing are now gone. And she hasn’t seen any evidence that the scandals have affected Gwinnett’s economic development efforts.

But she acknowledged they have hurt Gwinnett’s image.

“This kind of behavior reinforces every negative opinion that an individual might have about government,” Nash said.

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