DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - An invalid, possibly forged, draft of a DeKalb County Ethics Board opinion paved the way for a local official to win $1.5 million in county contracts, an investigation by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
"It probably does need to be investigated by the county if that indeed happened," DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennen told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer after she presented the evidence uncovered during the two-month investigation.
The contracts went to Atlanta-based APD Solutions, whose CEO and founder, Vaughn Irons, also serves as chairman of the DeKalb County Development Authority.
Records show in 2009, a county attorney wrote a legal opinion declaring Irons and APD Solutions ineligible to bid on an earlier contract, since he is a member of DeKalb's governing authority and would personally profit from the contract. That's when Irons wrote to the DeKalb County Ethics Board asking for an ethics opinion in his favor.
"I remember feeling bad that we couldn't hear the matter because we couldn't get a quorum, and so that kind of delayed and delayed and delayed," said Bryan Smith, who served on the ethics board for 10 years and as chairman when the Irons request was made, "To my recollection we didn't get an opportunity to vote on that."
In November 2011, the county purchasing department sent Irons a letter saying he was still ineligible after he submitted a bid for the current round of contracts. Two weeks later, the signed ethics opinion showed up in the purchasing department.
"All I know is that's my signature," said Smith of the signed opinion, "How it got on there I'm not sure."
Steve Irving, who served as the ethics board attorney at the time, says he wrote the opinion as a draft.
It is not witnessed, not dated and was never filed with the county clerk.
Ethics board agendas and minutes from 2010 reflect meetings in August and September, when the Irons opinion was discussed and then tabled.
Five of the six board members who served during that time say they do not recall ever voting on the Irons matter.
The sixth member, Thelma Grier, would not discuss her recollections and didn't respond to an open records request for any documents in her possession related to the issue.
"It never came back up," said Irving, "Somebody has misused my work product."
Irving pointed out the Irons opinion number, 15, is handwritten in at the top. Plus, the document also fails to include a date of the ethics board vote, which Irving would typically type into the opening paragraph after the vote, along with the correct opinion number.
Perhaps most telling, there is another ethics board opinion 15, which was voted on in 2013. That opinion is typed, dated and stamped when it was filed with the clerk.
"How that comes about is just very baffling," said Smith. "That would just seem ridiculous that someone would do that."
Smith says he believes someone could have forged his signature.
"But regardless, this wouldn't be considered valid," Smith added referring to the Irons opinion.
Brennan says the purchasing department staffers accepted it at face value, although now it isn't clear how it arrived in the purchasing department. No one from the county was able to identify a 'received' date stamp at the top or its accompanying initials.
"We believe that it came from the vendor," said Brennan, adding that county procedure would not provide for another way for the purchasing department to have received it.
County Clerk, Barbara Sanders also confirmed she has never been asked to provide a copy of an ethics opinion to the purchasing department.
Irons, through his spokesman, Jeff Dickerson, denied providing the opinion and declined a request for an interview.
"It is news to Vaughn Irons that the ethics opinion he sought was never voted on," said Dickerson, "Mr. Irons will request an immediate investigation as to why, six years after his request, the Ethics Board failed to cast a vote on an opinion drafted by its attorney."
Repeated requests to explain who first informed him of the favorable opinion, and why he never requested a copy, went unanswered.
Dickerson added, "Mr. Irons never submitted a draft of the ethics opinion to any government agency or agent, nor has he ever directed anyone else to do so."
The contracts in question were awarded through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, or NSP, and granted federal dollars to vendors which would purchase foreclosed and distressed properties, rehab them and then sell them.
Irons' company ranked fourth in a bid process which picked two winners; yet APD Solutions still got a contract. That's because the county changed course and gave awards to the top four bidders, citing a federal deadline to spend the money.
Then APD became the only contract winner to get an extra allotment of money - bringing its contract total to $1.5 million - without having to go through another bid process.
DeKalb commissioner's cozy relationship with Irons
When Irons' contracts went before the DeKalb County Commission for approval, Commissioner Stan Watson voted in favor of both, despite being on Irons' payroll as a consultant - a violation of county ethics rules.
Watson did not disclose his relationship with Irons' company before either of the unanimous votes.
In an earlier interview with Channel 2 Action News, Irons defended their working relationship and said Watson provides strategic advice for projects that they take on outside the state of Georgia.
"Commissioner Watson may have relationships or contacts to introduce us to," Irons said, "We have a standard monthly retainer of a very nominal amount of about $500."
Fleischer called several times to request an interview with Watson regarding the arrangement.
Watson skipped several county meetings, and has a “no trespassing” sign posted at his house.
Fleischer questioned him briefly after a community breakfast he hosted, and asked about the two votes on Irons' contracts.
"I don't remember doing that," Watson said. "If I did, that was a mistake and inadvertent."
Fleischer offered to show him the county minutes to refresh his memory.
"I've seen the minutes," Watson replied, "I apologize to the citizens if I did that, I didn't know I did that."
Watson said he has not used his position as a commissioner to benefit APD Solutions, but he declined to discuss the issue in depth, cutting off the interview.
Watson did recuse himself on APD Solutions' latest vote, for a casino-style development on Covington Highway called Panola Slope, without citing a reason for the recusal or his connection to the company.
When Fleischer asked, Watson denied having meetings on the project's behalf, but records show otherwise.
Georgia's Lottery Corporation provided a letter discussing Watson's meeting with lottery officials last summer.
DeKalb County Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander confirmed Watson met with him to lobby for his support for the project.
Emails between Watson and Irons, obtained under Georgia's Open Records Act, even show discussions of a proposed DeKalb County gaming ordinance back in April 2014, eight months prior to the commission vote on the project.
That ordinance was never introduced. Instead the project gained approval by obtaining a special land use permit and a zoning change, both of which were rescinded after a Channel 2 investigation in early February exposed questions about the project.
Brennan says it's too late to rescind the NSP contracts; the work was already completed.
The county paid APD Solutions $972,000 on the initial contract; roughly $100,000 of that was profit for the company. Brennan says none of the $500,000 contract extension was ever paid.
"It is one contract that does not appear to have had the scrutiny that it needed to have," said Brennan.
The WSB/AJC investigation found no evidence linking Watson to the questionable ethics opinion.
Irving said he would sometimes provide unsigned drafts of proposed ethics opinions to sitting board members in advance of a vote, or they might be available to spectators at an ethics board meeting.
But he was stunned when he saw the signed copy of the Irons opinion.
"It makes some hairs on the back of my neck stand up," Irving said. "Because it's an easy signature to forge."