DeKalb County is embroiled in another controversy surrounding kickbacks from county contractors.
The latest incident, which was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, involves DeKalb interim CEO Lee May, former County Commission Chief of Staff Morris Williams and county contractor Water Removal Services. Williams is alleged to have taken a $4,000 kickback from Water Removal Services by forging May’s signature. That contractor was later awarded $300,000 in county business. County funds were also allegedly used for repairs to the CEO’s home. Water Removal Services did the repairs.
DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon isn’t surprised by any of it.
“There have been rumors of this kind of stuff floating around for a long time — that Commissioner May did have preferential treatment to get his house fixed … that Morris Williams was the middleman for getting votes for certain contracts.”
May has denied any wrongdoing. County spokesman Burke Brennan says May was the victim of a crime, apparently committed by Williams. WABE couldn’t reach Williams, who abruptly retired last month after nearly 20 years with the county.
The FBI is reportedly investigating the incident.
Gannon believes May should step down as CEO until there’s some resolution.
“The culture of corruption persists, and there’s no one to deal with it in DeKalb County. That’s why it’s not being dealt with.”
Brennan says May is not stepping down and insists the county is taking action. He points to May’s hiring of independent investigators, including former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, to look into countywide corruption. He also referred to May’s support of an effort to create a new internal auditor position.
Some, however, are frustrated that more action hasn’t been taken, particularly since the 2013 indictment of Burrell Ellis, the still-suspended DeKalb CEO accused of strong-arming county contractors for political donations. A special grand jury leading up to the case recommended at least 11 others be investigated, but so far no one else has been charged.
“The county, from my perspective, was a little bit slow to make sure these issues have been fixed,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-DeKalb. “Whatever the bottom is, we need to get to it so we can start moving back up.”
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur says she’s heard rumors about Williams for years.
“I was surprised when Morris Williams continued to work in an even more powerful position. I felt like he was the center of a lot of the concern,” Oliver said. “I just hope the district attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are working together at this point. These investigations need to be coordinated in some way.”
Gannon believes DeKalb District Attorney Robert James has focused too much on Ellis and given insufficient attention to the county’s long-troubled watershed and public works departments.
“All of the departmental issues we asked the DA to look into and instead he looked into Ellis, who did something probably not appropriate but did it rise to the level of corruption? I don’t know. I don’t think so. And I think he’s having a hard time proving that because his only witness is someone that was part of the corrupt culture,” Gannon said.
“The district attorney was moving in on the Watershed stuff, when he gets handed this envelope with all this information put together for him on Ellis. It sounds like a setup to me. He was going in the right direction, but he got diverted.”
When asked about the latest incident and the DA’s priorities, Erik Burton, a spokesman for James, emailed the following statement:
“Our office works tirelessly to investigate and prosecute public corruption and other felony crimes in DeKalb County. Each year, our office prosecutes nearly 11,000 cases including murders, rapes/sexual assaults, child molestation and public corruption.”
In October, a judge declared a mistrial in Ellis’ corruption case. The jury couldn’t agree on any of the 13 felony charges brought by the district attorney. James is preparing to re-try Ellis in June.