Todd Rehm gets it. His Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for July 22, 2015 included this article.
After a few years of spending every morning reading the news all across the state, I’ve learned this.
1.) in small, local governments, they tend to take money right from the till, in small amounts over a long period of time, sometimes accruing large amounts;
2.) in large metro governments, they take bribes related to zoning or government contracts;
3.) in State bureaucracies, it’s usually fake invoices
4.) in DeKalb County they take everything;
5.) folks at all levels will steal from the Feds, who don’t make it terribly hard.
It’s not entirely a political problem – it’s a problem with humanity, and people have taken what they’re not supposed to ever since the Garden of Eden. When opportunity strikes, opportunists strike, and people are at their core, somewhat opportunistic. But DeKalb County exacerbates the potential for corruption by making opportunities for corruption more available.
DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester replied to that post, writing,
You know what I think about DeKalb. We only have 2 problems: (1) Incompetence and (2) Fraud. And one often causes the other.
Keep that one in mind. Also important, the opportunity to take other peoples’ property is key to folks who decide to steal, embezzle, or accept bribes.
Johnny Edwards of the AJC has written again about how Vaughn Irons made millions from DeKalb County government.
First a phony Ethics Board opinion mysteriously showed up in the county’s contracting department, allowing Irons to bid for county work despite his conflict of interest as a government official. Then the county awarded his company, APD Solutions, a $1 million contract to rehab foreclosed homes, even though APD missed the cut by ranking fourth in the bidding process. Then the county gave APD an extra $500,000 to rehab more homes, without requiring another bid.
On Sunday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that once Irons had a contract, his company went on to charge DeKalb taxpayers $10,000 for a 140-foot backyard privacy fence – about five times what a fence of that length should cost.
County staffers don’t appear to have scrutinized that expense. Nor did they question tens of thousands of dollars in other charges that lacked backup documentation in the county’s files, or layers of fees for such tasks as processing invoices, interacting with the county and managing subcontractors.
When APD Solutions sold its first rehabbed home in south DeKalb’s Piedmont Point subdivision, in March 2013, the company held a ceremony to hand the new homeowner her keys.
Irons was there, as was Commissioner Stan Watson, who Irons was paying $500 per month for consulting services at the time. They weren’t the only VIPs in attendance who were benefitting.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed House Bill 597 to reform the DeKalb County Ethics Board. If voters pass a November 2015 referendum on the issue, the new legislation will take effect, removing the power of appointing members of the Ethics Board from Commissioners and placing that in the hands of third parties.
That makes some sense, as the current Board of Ethics has pending before it complaints against Commissioners Stan Watson and Sharon Barnes-Sutton, both of whom currently serve on the DeKalb County Commission
Groups who will appoint members if the referendum passes include the DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb County legislative delegation, the judge of the Probate Court of DeKalb County, Leadership DeKalb, a committee of the six largest universities and colleges in DeKalb, and the chief judge of the Superior Court of DeKalb County.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Part of the reason to remove appointment power from the Board of Commissioners is presumably to remove the conflict of interest when a Commissioner appoints a member who may may be called to pass judgment on them. But Vaughn Irons, who is the subject of a number of AJC stories recently, and against whom a complaint is currently pending before the Board of Ethics, sits on the Board of Directors of Leadership DeKalb and Chairs the Board of Directors of the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, Irons serves asChair of the Development Authority of DeKalb County. Irons also is currently suing DeKalb County over a zoning that didn’t go his way.
Ironically, the measure to reform the DeKalb County Board of Ethics and remove conflicts of interest may create additional potential for conflicts of interest. Today, conflicts of interest are so embedded in the way DeKalb County does business that it may be nearly impossible to remove opportunities for corruption.
When DeKalb County politicians talk about economic development, they should heed the words of Chris Carr, who leads the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
[L]ate last year, May and some other DeKalb commissioners met with Chris Carr, head of the state Department of Economic Development.
Ostensibly, the reason for the get-together was a new marketing plan the county had developed for going after new businesses. But the conversation quickly shifted into come-to-Jesus territory, said Carr, himself a resident of DeKalb.
“It doesn’t make sense that DeKalb County wouldn’t be a part of this burgeoning economy. But the reality of the situation is, there is only so much the state can do. The county is going to have to take care of its business,” Carr said. “You can’t have indictments, and you can’t have school boards getting removed, because companies can go any number of places.”
This was Carr’s bottom line: “The fact is, outside of Perimeter Center, of the projects that the state has been a part, there are very, very, very few where folks are looking at DeKalb.”
State bureaucrats don’t often employ the triple “very.” But in this Internet-driven age, job growth and reputation are closely linked. It is serious stuff. Tax bases are at stake. Which means schools are at stake, as well as every service a county is obliged to provide.