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DeKalb brushed off concerns about politicallyconnected developer

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015


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By Johnny Edwards - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When Vaughn Irons got clearance to double as a DeKalb County official and a county contractor,
some employees tried to put a stop to it.
The objections they raised about conflicts of interest, though, got brushed aside by the countys
higher-ups.

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DeKalb Interim CEO Lee May (left) and developer Vaughn
Irons attended a function where they were honored. On
Saturday, May said ... Read More

Baffled members of a bid evaluation committee


demanded an explanation, but they were instructed
by contracting officials to put Irons company in the
mix of firms vying for federal stimulus funds. A
financial officer put her suspicions of collusion into a
formal written grievance, and she says she personally implored interim CEO Lee May to step in. But,
she said, he told her Irons contract was a non-issue.
No one, it seems, was willing to root out how, exactly, a sitting DeKalb Development Authority board
member would be exempt from an ethics code that says the county government cant do business
with its own officials.
It turns out that Irons pass to do that was an invalid, possibly forged, legal document, an
investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News discovered. Someone
got their hands on a draft of a proposed Ethics Board opinion a work in progress by the boards
attorney at the time and passed it off as official to the DeKalb department that oversees contracts.
Irons company, APD Solutions, went from a disqualified bidder to the winner of a $1 million
contract to rehab foreclosed homes.

That document is the latest sign of deep-seeded malfeasance within DeKalbs government, viewed as
being so tainted that virtually all the county's remaining unincorporated areas are trying to distance
themselves by forming cities. The state Legislature may soon impose changes to the countys ethical
and purchasing practices.
The relationships between Irons and certain high-level officials also raise questions about how
sincere the countys leaders are about closing the door to potential abuse.
Last year, Irons co-chaired a task force set up by May to propose reforms the very ones state
lawmakers are considering. And he plays a lead role in the interim CEOs initiative to recruit
business and jobs.
All along, Irons has been making monthly payments to a sitting commissioner, Stan Watson, to serve
as his consultant. Watson didnt disclose the arrangement when he twice shirked ethical guidelines
to vote on APDs contract and when he aided Irons controversial plan to develop a resort and casinostyle entertainment center in south DeKalb, the AJC and Channel 2 found.
This man is very well respected, and has been for many, many years, Viola Davis, a citizen
watchdog, said of Irons. What do you do when even the people that are respected are caught up in
controversies like this?
Irons is a man with friends in high places within the DeKalb government. Processes were
circumvented. An insiders club reigned.
The right friends
Irons has disavowed knowledge of the questionable documents origin and how it got into the
countys files.

+WSB-TV
Members of the 2010 DeKalb County Ethics Board, shown
here in a September 2010 meeting, say they dont recall ever
voting ... Read More

That would mean someone either did Irons a favor or


made a whopping clerical mistake.
Ive done nothing wrong, Irons said. I think
theres another plausible reason why this could have happened, and it could be processes and
mismanagement.

The document bears the signature of the former Ethics Board chairman, who said he doesnt recall
signing it and doesnt know why he would have. Its also numbered opinion 15 in handwriting above
a blank line. An unrelated opinion 15 was officially filed with the clerks office more than a year later.
Purported ethics opinion on APD
Stan Watson's vote on APD $500,000 contract addition
Model ordinance for gaming machines
Tourism megasite proposal

The matter has Mays attention now. This past week, the DeKalb County district attorney asked the
county government for all documents turned over to the AJC and Channel 2 in their investigation,
and May said he's cooperating.
On Saturday, May announced that he will try to remove Irons from the Development Authority,
along with the rest of the board. The County Commission must approve the replacements, whom
May will name within the next month, spokesman Burke Brennan said.
I think the narrative you are putting together regarding this is a bit troubling, May told the AJC.
We want to eliminate even the appearance of impropriety, because were seeking to rebuild the
publics confidence in the work that we do.
Bid recommendations on NSP contracrt
Walton letter to Vaughn Irons
Unprecedented gaming resort planned
Fishy document let DeKalb official bid on county contract

The AJC and Channel 2 found no evidence tying Watson to the questionable document. But as Irons
was trying to smooth the way for hiscasino-style Panola Slope resort, off Covington Highway,
Watson collaborated with Irons on a proposed ordinance regulating coin-operated amusement
machines. Watson also issued proclamations touting Irons.
We as a community, said a June 8, 2012 proclamation, recognize and acknowledge the fearless
spirit of CEO Vaughn D. Irons as he paved the way for the development of Panola Slope and for the
myriad of contributions that he made to the advancement of the lives of citizens who call DeKalb
County home.
Watson declined interview requests for this story.

Related Video
A conflict of interest | Vaughn Irons

Irons said he didnt pay the commissioner for help


with his business interests in DeKalb County. I think
these are all things Mr. Watson would have done for
any business, and likely has done for any business, he
said.
Watson hasnt been the only high-ranking county official in Irons corner.
His political connections in DeKalb go back to two past administrations. In 2007, then-CEO Vernon
Jones appointed Irons, a national director at the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac),
to the DeKalb Development Authority. Irons stayed on the board after Burrell Ellis was elected as
CEO in 2008.
Irons first tried to bid for a piece of DeKalbs multi-million dollar grant through the federal
Neighborhood Stabilization Program in 2009, the same year he left Freddie Mac and formed APD
Solutions. But he got deflected by an opinion written by Assistant County Attorney Terri Gordon,
who said the ethics code barred Irons from being both a member of the government and a
government contractor.
Irons tried to get an opinion in his favor from the countys Ethics Board, the final decision-maker on
such issues. But a search of records, and polling of current and former board members, found the
board never took a vote.
While Irons was still shut out of bidding, in late 2011, Ellis made a call on his behalf, former
Purchasing and Contracting Director Kelvin Walton told the AJC.
Walton, who had sent a letter to Irons telling him he couldnt bid, said his boss wanted to know why
APD was being excluded, arguing that Irons didnt have a conflict.
My response was that he has a conflict because hes serving on one of the committees, Walton
recalled, referring to Irons membership on the Development Authority. And then he said, Fine,
fine. He said, But I dont think its a conflict.
Walton said he later got a call from Ellis chief of staff, Jabari Simama, who made a similar
argument.

Reached by phone and asked about the APD contract, Ellis suspended in 2013 after he was
accused of shaking down contractors for contributions said he was at a doctors appointment and
would call back. He never did, and he and his attorney didnt return messages. Simama also did not
return calls.
Irons said he didnt ask for Ellis help and doesnt know why he would make a call on his behalf. He
maintains that regardless of what transpired, he did not have a conflict of interest in bidding for
housing redevelopment work because the Development Authority wasn't involved.
If we would have been disqualified, that would have been an injustice, Irons said.
Suddenly eligible
When Walton sent word to the bid committee to score APDs proposal, some members could hardly
believe what they were hearing, meeting minutes show.
They had already rejected APD outright and whittled five other bidders down to three. Now, they
would have to redo scoring to consider APD and give the company an interview.
Committee member and Community Development Director Chris Morris asked Waltons department
to come explain how APD could be eligible. The purchasing department sent a deputy director,
Debra Brewer, to the next meeting.
Committee member Allen Mitchell, a Community Development assistant director, asked how APD
could be deemed qualified to bid, without the county lawyers input. Another member, Amanullah
Saify, expressed concerns about the Committees purpose in the process, meeting minutes say.
In response, Brewer recommended that the Committee continue its review of the APD Solutions
proposal.
She told the AJC and Channel 2, though, that she was following her boss instructions and had the
same concerns as the committee. I think it was a clear-cut ethical violation that couldnt be
overcome, Brewer,who now works for Clayton County, said recently.
The committee ranked APD fourth and recommended the County Commission hand the top two
bidders contracts for $1.6 million each.
That decision also got changed. Amid concerns that the county could miss a federal deadline to
spend NSP funds, the commission, on the Community Development's recommendation, gave the
third- and fourth-place bidders contracts for $1 million each. The money came out of a different NSP
grant than the one they had bid for.

Then, nine months later, the commission approved handing APD and only APD another
$500,000, also from the other NSP pot. The company had submitted a proposal to rehab houses in
another neighborhood, but the project never came to fruition and APD never received the extra
money.
In a 2013 grievance filed with the county, former Community Development Financial Officer Harmel
Codi said the department disregarded procedures by allowing companies to receive money they
hadnt actually bid for.
In a six-page letter, in which she mostly complained about Director Morris management style, she
described being ordered to draft APDs contract amendment for the additional half million dollars,
and being ignored when she questioned how such an amount could be awarded without a
procurement process.
Contacted by the AJC, Codi said that before quitting the county, she met with May, who had recently
ascended to the interim CEO position, to express her concerns.
May denied telling her APDs contract was a non-issue, but he said their talk came amid about 100
meetings, and Codi had a litany of complaints about the department.
We didnt put a whole lot of energy into that, because again, this was one of many, many concerns,
he said. Hindsight being 20/20, of course, yeah, I could look at it differently now.
Tennessee and a blind eye
May, like his predecessors, put faith in Irons. Last March, following AJC reports about thenCommissioner Elaine Boyers criminal misuse of a government-issued Visa card, May established a
special task force to examine DeKalb government. Meeting minutes show May tapped Irons to chair
a subcommittee to examine possible government reforms. (Mays spokesman says he only suggested
Irons for the role.)
That same month, May elevated Irons to a lead role in an initiative to bring jobs to the county,
announcing that the Development Authority Irons was now chairing would be responsible for
implementing tax credit and loan programs and for creating a new business alliance.
Irons appears to have kept the interim CEOs confidence even after May learned late last year that
the Panola Slope resort could benefit from initiatives Irons was pushing at the Development
Authority.

Last spring, Irons and a group of other DeKalb officials spent more than $11,000 in taxpayer money
to visit the resort cities of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to study ways to promote tourism. May had
been scheduled to go but had to back out because of schedule conflicts.
Irons, as Development Authority chairman, has also been pushing for atourism megasite
designation covering about two-thirds of the county. The proposal was part of an economic
development plan presented to the county in August. According to a document obtained from the
Development Authority, the megasite could position retail businesses to receive job tax credits.
Plans for what Irons will call Panola Resort include four retail boutiques.
Irons characterized the megasite as a marketing effort to bolster the Memorial Drive corridor leading
to Stone Mountain. Though the proposed boundaries currently include the Panola property, he said a
map hasnt been finalized.
Im not the driver of that, any more than many other stakeholders, Irons said.
Former Ethics Board Chairman Isaac Blythers said Mays silence until now doesnt bode well for the
improvements promised to residents. It raises the question: Are they really serious about what they
say theyre doing? Blythers said. And this reform, is it just a lot of talk?
Current Ethics chair John Ernst said reforms might have to come both from within the county and
from outside of it, including law enforcement.
What we have right now, Ernst said, is unsustainable.