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Companies with DeKalb business gave $44K+ to Stan Watson fund
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By JIM WALLS
July 11, 2016 – Vendors and companies with business before DeKalb County officials kicked in tens of thousands of dollars in undisclosed donations to fund a county commissioner’s pet community projects, newly available public records show.
At least $44,000 was collected on behalf of Commissioner Stan Watson from such companies from 2011 to 2014. Much of the money was deposited in an account controlled by Watson but administered by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber has declined to identify the donors publicly but named many of them in papers filed with with the state ethics commission in response to a complaint. The agency’s staff dismissed the complaint last month, finding no violation of campaign finance law; closing the case made the chamber’s response and other portions of the commission’s investigative file a public record.
The commission, though, is still conducting an “initial investigation” into Watson, who resigned in March to run for another office, and former Commissioner Elaine Boyer, for whom the chamber maintained a similar but smaller fund. Boyer just finished serving a year in federal prison for spending more than $100,000 in public money on personal expenses.
The DeKalb Board of Ethics is also investigating a related complaint against Watson.
Watson did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
County commissioners must regularly disclose campaign donors so voters can see what private interests may be seeking to influence their public actions. The existence of Watson’s fund, though, remained a secret until WSB-TV disclosed it in November.
William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, who filed the complaint with the state, said he still believes the chamber’s operation of the secret fund was improper.
“It’s clearly influence peddling,” he said. “I’m surprised this wouldn’t be considered a lobbying expense. The chamber was being used as a conduit to influence public officials.”
Watson used his chamber account primarily to sponsor an annual International Food & Music Festival. The commissioner appeared in videos promoting the festival and showcased the event on Facebook and Twitter. A 2015 package for sponsors noted that he could promote the festival to 25,000 people on his e-mail list and to viewers of his public-access cable TV show.
Festival proceeds primarily benefited the non-profit DeKalb Police Alliance and the Police Athletic League.
The largest fund, though, was controlled by Watson. Sponsors and vendors seeking space at the festival paid nearly $124,000 into Watson’s fund from 2011 to 2014, records subpoenaed from the DeKalb County Commission and the chamber of commerce show.
Donors included water and sewer contractors who gave while Watson chaired the commission’s Public Works Committee. Fund managers for DeKalb’s pension fund also gave while Watson served on the commission’s Employee Resources Committee.
Contributors to Watson’s fund included:
- Water and sewer vendors AECOM ($1,000), Black & Veatch ($1,000), Brown & Caldwell ($500), Ch2M Hill ($3,000) and Jacobs Engineering ($1,000);
- Siebert Brandford Shank & Co. ($2,500), senior manager for DeKalb’s 2011 sewer and water bond issue;
- Gas South ($3,500), which sends out marketing material in DeKalb County water bills;
- Two pension investment managers, The Edgar Lomax Group ($5,000) and Frontier Capital Management Co. ($7,500);
- Cadillac Fairview ($3,000), owner of undeveloped land near Stonecrest Mall that was a subject of a 2013 land-use study by DeKalb;
- The Integral Group ($6,500), currently seeking a 25-year tax break to support redevelopment of the old General Motors site in Doraville;
- Selig Enterprises ($2,500), which was asking in 2011 for a make-or-break parking variance for a new Wal-mart just outside the Decatur city limits;
- Scicom Infrastructure ($1,300), an information technology contractor for DeKalb;
- ADS Trinity dba Atlanta Demolition ($1,000), a contractor for the Housing Authority of DeKalb; and
- The DeKalb Development Authority ($5,000) and the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority ($5,000), each of which depend on an annual appropriation from the county commission.
Other companies may also have contributed to Watson’s fund, as the source of about $42,000 deposited in the account cannot be determined from ledger entries. The ethics commission, citing an exemption in the Open Records Act, declined to release bank statements that could identify those donors.
It’s unclear whose name was on the account where the funds were deposited in 2011. In 2012, the chamber became fiscal agent for the fund at Watson’s request, serving in that role until new leadership decided to end the relationship in 2014. The remaining funds were transferred to the South DeKalb YMCA.