DeKalb's darkest days might still be ahead

Residents might just be seeing the beginning of the county's implosion.

The dominoes are falling in DeKalb County's corrupt government.

Former DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer recently pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and last month went to prison in a high-profile victory for the U.S. Attorney's office. Her conviction is far from an isolated incident. Other people tied to DeKalb County government who, at first glance, seem like bit players have also struck plea deals over the last few weeks.

As DeKalb District Attorney Robert James continues to focus on suspended CEO Burrell Ellis, the county's highest-profile corruption case at the moment, federal authorities who are investigating county corruption have continued mining for cooperating witnesses. Those smaller efforts could lead to more indictments of the county's higher-level public officials.

Ellis, who was elected in 2008, initially seem to offer residents a fresh start following previous scandals that included a recorder's court bribery case, a police chief's ignominious firing, and a school board's upheaval. But five years later, authorities raided the CEO's house for an investigation that led to a 13-count indictment. Last October, he skirted conviction following a hung jury. Ellis' retrial starts on June 1.

His case set off the current wave of exposed corruption. In August 2013, a grand jury recommended criminal investigations into 12 county officials. About a year later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found several DeKalb commissioners abusing their county-issued purchasing cards. Yet Boyer's downfall last year surprised people. The federal embezzlement charge didn't just highlight her purchasing card abuse, it also revealed about $90,000 in fake invoices to a shill vendor. After initially facing 40 years behind bars, she received a lighter 14-month sentence due to her cooperation as a witness.

The U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment about Boyer's case for this story. Since Boyer's guilty plea, federal authorities have obtained plea agreements from at least three other people with DeKalb government ties. They include Jeremy "Jerry" Clark, a zoning board of appeals member, pleaded guilty in February to one count of bribery for keeping open Lulu Billiards, a shady nightclub in Tucker, Ga., despite its dodging of county laws. The club's owner, Ismail Sirdah, who also pleaded guilty to bribery last week.

Sirdah's plea deal is particularly telling. His DeKalb nightclubs have long drawn complaints from DeKalb cops, neighbors, and the media for seemingly flouting the law. He's on the ropes after recently losing a six-figure judgment in an employment lawsuit, followed by a court denying his bankruptcy filing. He is also a heavy political donor. He's written checks to campaigns over the years, most recently including donations to Ellis and DeKalb Interim CEO Lee May.

Around the time the FBI charged Sirdah, Morris Williams, the deputy chief operating officer of the county's public works and infrastructure department, unexpectedly retired. Williams, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, had worked for the county in a senior capacity for nearly two decades, through the last two CEOs' administrations. If there's any one person in DeKalb government who knows where the bodies are buried, it's Williams.

The FBI appears to be lining up witnesses for further prosecutions. But the Ellis case has complicated their work. As long as May doesn't resign his District 5 commission seat, his south DeKalb constituents remain unrepresented. May's resignation would leave him out of action should Ellis be cleared of charges and return to the post from which he's suspended.

The situation has the commission tied into knots. Case in point: Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton filed an Open Records request last month to see emails from the district attorney, the interim CEO, and other commissioners to determine who might be cooperating with investigators in a criminal probe.

Commissioner Stan Watson, whose name last year emerged in wiretap records on a federal corruption trial in South Carolina, had two ethics complaints filed against him in 2014 for alleged misuse of his county purchasing card. In addition, his work for Vaughn Irons, a well-connected developer and chairman of DeKalb's development authority, has come under scrutiny. Irons' firm, APD Solutions, obtained an ethics waiver in 2011 allowing it to bid on millions of dollars in county contracts despite being ineligible. Watson voted on the contracts, subsequently raising serious ethical questions.

The potential indictment of more commissioners would have major ramifications. If Department of Justice officials indict more county commissioners while there's already one seat empty, the public could be left without a quorum that effectively paralyzes government operations. Never mind the additional taint to the county's government.

But that's the problem with dominoes, isn't it? Once one domino falls, the whole chain falls until it's over.