An investigation of corruption and fraud in DeKalb County turned up more than half a million dollars in possibly illegal spending, ethical lapses and stonewalling of public documents.
And if you think that’s bad, wait ‘til you get a load of what goes on in DeKalb that’s legal.
The report revealed this past week by Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde didn’t quite deliver the bombshells anticipated from a probe that lasted more than six months, for which they’re expected to bill the county some $850,000. Were the details troubling? Absolutely. “Appalling” and “stunning” and “sinister,” as the investigators put it? Not quite.
We may find there’s more to the accusations once Bowers and Hyde turn their evidence over to state and/or federal prosecutors. By all means, corruption and fraud on any scale — widespread or narrow, in big chunks of money or a nickel here and a dime there — should be prosecuted. Let’s not belittle that.
But neither let us ignore the “rot” in DeKalb that’s perfectly legal.
Where to start? Just two months ago, DeKalb commissioners approved spending $12 million of taxpayer money to attract a training complex for billionaire Arthur Blank’s new soccer team. That’s beyond the value of the land involved, estimated at $5 million, and a 30-year property-tax abatement on it worth a projected $540,000 annually. The vote came after commissioners refused to take public comments.
That, in one fell swoop, is many times more money than DeKalb employees may have misspent over the course of seven or eight years — albeit a fraction of the hundreds of millions Blank got for his stadium in Atlanta or the Braves got for their ballpark in Cobb, or even what Gwinnett shelled out for a minor-league stadium. Maybe it’ll yield some economic development in a blighted corridor overshadowed by the county jail, maybe not. But it’s just money, right?
Then there’s the DeKalb Ethics Board (oxymoron alert) and its kid-gloves treatment of Commissioner Stan Watson. No one disputes Watson voted to award a $1 million contract to a firm, APD Solutions, and later to increase the contract by 50 percent, while receiving $500 a month to give the firm “strategic advice.” But nor did a majority of the Ethics Board deem the conflict-of-interest deserving of more than a reprimand.
Everyday versions of “rot,” from slow-as-Christmas zoning and permitting to undetectable policing in some areas, have sparked a cityhood movement to improve some of these basic services. If referenda on the creation of Tucker and LaVista Hills succeed at the ballot box next month, nearly all of northern DeKalb will be part of one city or another, all in an effort to gain at least some measure of relief from county incompetence.
And let’s not even get into the county’s school system, which is so bad some residents wonder if they wouldn’t be better off as part of, yes, Atlanta Public Schools.
Taken together, the illegal and the legal, the corruption and the incompetence, the cronyism and the neglect, DeKalb is one of only four counties in Georgia where real median household income peaked in 1969, according to a Washington Post review of census data last year.
That might not be criminal, strictly speaking. But it’s an indictment of county leadership that won’t be fixed by a few resignations or prosecutions.