Unified Theory of Political Corruption

Todd Rehm gets it. His Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for July 22, 2015 included this article.

Subject: A Lesson in Government Corruption
By: Todd Rehm
Todd Rehm is a political consultant and editor of GaPundit.com, the most-read political newsletter in Georgia.

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.

8 responses to “Unified Theory of Political Corruption

  1. fed up with HR excuses

    Something about “chickens coming home to roost” comes to my mind after reading this. I would like to know their reactions to Carr’s statement.
    Long time ago, we the taxpaying, property owning parents asked why our county commissioners weren’t more concerned about the years of failing administrations of our school system. We were all told the commission has nothing to do with the school system. Hmmmm. Might have been more prudent to be involved.
    Any hope for someone getting a clue now? It seems the school system does have an affect the business investment in this county.

  2. Fed Up,
    Interesting you should ask. Commissioner Nancy Jester was the inspirational speaker back in April. She went through CCRPI scores and repeated Carr’s statement to the Superintendent and Board of Education. Superintendent Thurmond and Board Chair Johnson responded by cutting off her mic.
    Here is the excerpt of Nancy’s presentation right before cutting her off …
    “Let’s look at DeKalb and the 2014 CCRPI, the new index for achievement and progress in our schools. When we look at that and break it down and look at the metro counties around us and the city schools around us, Decatur, Marietta and so forth … In our elementary schools, DeKalb County remains dead last. We’re at the bottom of the CCRPI. We also have the lowest progress there. We’re dead last and we’re improving but at a slower rate than other people. So, that leaves us in a worse relative position.
    Middle Schools, we’re also in last place. In High School, we are third from the bottom, but clustered very close to the bottom with APS and Clayton. So, I think it’s important to note the relativity there. We have to be making progress faster in order to be competitive. This is one of the most important things that is affecting economic development in our county.
    Some of you may recall that recently the Georgia Commissioner for Economic Development said that outside the perimeter area, DeKalb is getting very very very few looks at economic development. And, of course, education is critical for that.
    So, my prayer is that you’re inspired today to look closely at that.”

  3. Our elected representatives from around the county spoke up during the Superintendent Search.
    State Rep. Scott Holcomb put this piece up on his website saying, ” [appointing] a Candidate Selection Committee, comprised of recognized community leaders […] would indicate that DeKalb County is ready to move ahead using best search practices by partnering with key stakeholders.”
    State Sen. Fran Millar said , “Since there is a professional search firm, I believe they should engage a representative group of community leaders in the process.”
    DeKalb County Interim CEO Lee May spoke to the BOE during public comments and sent this letter, saying “I recommend the creation of a selection committee that would interview the list of candidates offered by PROACT.”
    DeKalb County Board of Commissioners – Nancy Jester brought before the Board of Commissioners and unanimously passed this resolution calling for the, “DeKalb Board of Education to adopt a Superintendent search protocol that includes a Selection Committee of parents, leaders, and community members, to manage, guide, and recommend the best qualified candidate to be the Superintendent.”

  4. I was a little confused as to the impact of the 4-3 vote by the Dekalb County Board of Commissioners to deny that $700,000 funding for the Dekalb Ethics Board. I was very troubled by the comments made by the newly elected Commissioner elected to fill Lee May’s seat when she said that it was time to move on past the corruption allegations by simply ending the investigations. From my perspective, that is not the way to “move on”, by simply sweeping the dirt under the rug. I also found it very interesting to learn that two of the four votes cast against the funding were those of Stan Watson and Sharon Barnes-Sutton who are, themselves, the subjects of more than one of the investigations taking place. I wish that Governor Deal would simply appoint an outside, independent panel to investigate the governance and top management of Dekalb County. Perhaps this would take legislative involvement, but it ought to simply require Dekalb County to fund this investigation and permit no influence by any official or employee of Dekalb County. We can move on, but we first need to address the allegations and insure that we move forward with a clean government.

  5. fed up with HR excuses

    Yes, but be careful what you wish for Howdy. The governor’s appointed school board included some real doozys. I am still waiting for our school board to “investigate the governance and top management” in our school system. We have called for the same type of initiative for years in the school system and we are still waiting.

  6. Don McChesney

    Isn’t it time for our legislators and Governor to come in and replace the county commission. Their actions are no different than what the school board was removed for. In DeKalb you can never garner enough votes. Just like when I was on the BOE. I was always one vote short. The voting and the makeup of the school board seem to be rather similar. If the people who get to vote for cities fail to approve them we will be voting for more of the same. Howdy I will be surprised if they can get any of our wayward commissioners. I think Nancy is the only one that does not have some skeletons in the closet.

  7. Stan Jester

    Hey Don,
    I think the independent investigators, Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde, can take care of that. The question is … will their report be buried now that the investigation has been defunded?

  8. Fed up – I agree with you that the Governor’s appointed school board included some real doozies, but We the People had a great opportunity to change that last year. The size of the school board had been reduced from 9 to 7 and all stood for election last November. I had thought that it was a real possibility for Don to be elected, for Atticus LeBlanc to be elected, and for a new representative to be elected in District 4 (not Karen Carter). Moreover, I had thought that Thaddeus Mayfield would have been elected (the best one of those appointed by the Governor). Along with Stan Jester, that would have provided a majority to get the Dekalb County School System back on track. The administration would have been cleaned up, cleaned out, and reduced in size. Most likely, a different superintendent would have been selected. Resources would have been redirected to the classroom. Human Resources would have certainly been radically changed if not replaced wholesale. No longer would we have to depend on those outside contractors (such as that little white house in Chamblee) to provide “contract” teachers. Strides would have been made to retain qualified and competent teachers thus reducing the need to have so many vacancies every year. Moves would have been taken to restore TRA contributions for teachers and teachers would have been given a much greater role in running their classrooms. That teacher lawsuit would have been settled and legal expenses reduced. The bloated support staff would not be needed. Teachers would be accountable for results, have the latitude to determine support needs, and be treated like the professionals they are. Action would have been taken to restore relations with Druid Hills and, more broadly, with the greater Dekalb community. We would have a new school board chairman and there would be a new effort to rebuild trust with the community. And, for once, the community would be a genuine partner with the school board and not be taken for granted. Maybe next time around.