OPINION: It’s raining money in Stonecrest. Some went down the sewer

210415-Stonecrest-Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary holds a press conference at city hall on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
210415-Stonecrest-Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary holds a press conference at city hall on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

It was in early January when Jerry Myers, who runs an Atlanta-area career counseling service, got a strange call.

Myers’ business had been recently awarded $75,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds. A woman named Tee Foxx, who runs an entertainment agency, was requesting he pay 25% of his award back to Visitus.org, a firm that would be performing marketing on the city’s behalf.

Hmmm, that’s odd, Myers thought.

A week later, he got another call. This time it was Jason Lary, the mayor of Stonecrest, the east DeKalb County city that had helped disperse the funding. Lary had the same request, that Myers turn over a quarter of his federal money — or $18,750 — to Visitus.org, a company that Lary claimed was the city’s DMO (designated marketing organization).

The businessman felt pressured but didn’t send money over to the marketing firm. Nowhere in the paperwork did it mention anything like that. Instead, he wrote a check to Municipal Resource Partners, the organization Stonecrest had hired to dole out relief funds on the city’s behalf. Then he called a lawyer.

“There was a sense of ‘What the hell is going on?’” his lawyer, Max Richardson, told me. “That made no sense. For marketing? What marketing?!? It smelled funny.”

Richardson advised his client to put a stop order on his check.

“To me, it all smelled like a freaking kickback,” Richardson said.

Richardson was not the only one detecting that stench. An attorney who performed an audit on how Stonecrest distributed $6.2 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) funding recommended that folks with subpoena and arrest powers start sweating those around Stonecrest City Hall.

Stonecrest City Hall
Stonecrest City Hall

Credit: Google Maps

Credit: Google Maps

Stonecrest City Attorney Winston Denmark and a small team spent two months investigating the program and discovered at least five other firms had relented and paid the 25%. There were two other marketing firms also collecting those funds and all were created last year as it became apparent that a Brink’s truck stuffed with federal cash was headed down I-20 to Stonecrest.

“There is no evidence that the so-called ‘marketing’ services have ever been provided, and it is unknown where the money actually went,” Denmark wrote in his findings. “While this investigation cannot definitely conclude that this was a ‘kickback’ scheme, the appearance of such is overwhelming.”

In a press conference Thursday, Lary said that if something “wasn’t in line,” that he’d be the “first to apologize for it.”

“There was never an intent on anybody’s part to kick back or filter money back or any of that nonsense,” he said. He also announced he would not resign but was taking a break because of recurring cancer.

Tee Foxx’s name was all over the report. It called her a “city consulting contractor and subcontractor with Jacobs.” Jacobs is the staffing company that provides employees to Stonecrest, which is a recently created town with no real workforce.

Foxx, according to the report, was paid $12,000 last year to supply face masks to the city. She contacted businesses to drum up the 25% fee to be sent to recently created marketing firms. In September, a company called OCC Consulting Group was formed and got two checks totaling $30,980 three months later. Foxx is listed as that company’s business manager. Iris Settle, who worked for Jacobs and was Stonecrest’s chief of staff, is listed as the secretary of OCC.

Settle and her brother, William Settle, who was Stonecrest’s director of business development, have also served as employees in Foxx Entertainment. Both Settle siblings worked with Jacobs until recently.

I know, I know, this all gets confusing. You almost need a scorecard to keep track. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Zachary Hansen, an industrious fellow, even created a seven-page cheat sheet to keep track of all the intermingling of all the characters involved in this saga.

“It seems the relationship Ms. Fox had with the City due to her role as CEO for Foxx Entertainment and these inside relationships were leveraged to secure favorable awards from the City,” the audit found.

Foxx referred me to her attorney, Scott Grubman, who said Foxx vehemently denies any wrongdoing. “We look forward to all of the facts coming out, which we are confident will clear Ms. Foxx of any wrongdoing.”

Oh, yeah, Foxx, who helped Lary with his “I did nothing wrong” press conference Thursday, was also listed as the chief financial officer and secretary at Municipal Resource Partners. I say “was” because she was recently scrubbed from that company’s Secretary of State business listing.

Municipal Resource Partners, the company formed last year to disburse the CARES money, was to be paid 8.5% of the federal money, or about $2,000 for each check written. It would have amounted to $500,000-plus if all $6.2 million was disbursed. And most of it was.

By comparison, DeKalb County distributed funds through its own employees and had Citizens Trust Bank disburse the loan programs. Receipts show the bank charged about 5%.

This is a screenshot from Wednesday's special called meeting in Stonecrest.
This is a screenshot from Wednesday's special called meeting in Stonecrest.

Credit: City of Stonecrest

Credit: City of Stonecrest

The report goes through all sorts of, um, interesting spending. There was $20,000 for personalized wellness programs for Stonecrest residents; $20,000 for stress-release programs; $3,000 for “COVID self-care stress packages including candles, butter, oils and tea”; $20,000 for “Financial Service Education for Higher Net Earners”; and $3,500 “to provide healing hands and massage to every City staff member who desires using therapeutic holistic wellness massage.”

The massive New Birth Missionary Baptist Church was awarded $160,000. And the Arizona’s steakhouse — whose owners included the teenage daughters of New Birth’s pastor, the Rev. Jamal Bryant — got $250,000, the biggest grant to a business.

It all reminds me of the frenzy that occurs when someone throws a thick wad of cash into the air at a nightclub.

J. Tom Morgan, who used to be DeKalb’s district attorney, said: “My guess, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll see this all over. When you have that much money coming in with that little oversight, there’s going to be corruption.”

Democratic state Sen. Emanuel Jones, who this year passed legislation to limit Lary’s power, said: “When they got that money, (Lary) and his posse couldn’t help themselves. There’s a lot of money missing and we have to find out whose pockets it went into.”

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