DeKalb commissioner seeks contractor ethics pledge

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DeKalb County Board of Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson was present at the first in-person meeting in Decatur Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Steve Schaefer/[email protected])

By Jim Gaines

A DeKalb County commissioner wants to require businesses working for the county to report any lawsuits, civil or criminal charges, and major corporate changes — a move sparked in part by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporting on a major sewer contractor for DeKalb who faces federal fraud charges.

Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson has introduced a resolution to create a Business Code of Conduct for the county.

“This resolution seeks to ensure we do not learn of pending litigation and changes in the corporate structure of contractors and vendors on the news or in a newspaper article,” Cochran-Johnson said in a press release.

The AJC has chronicled charges against The Renee Group, a major water and sewer contractor, alleging fraud involving the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Cochran-Johnson’s resolution would require potential vendors or contractors to sign an agreement on reporting their involvement in litigation, legal charges or material changes in corporate structure. They would have to report any federal, state or municipal litigation within 10 days, and any corporate changes within 14 days, or have their contracts terminated and be permanently barred from work for the county.

The agreement would become part of the county procurement policy. New applicants that don’t sign the policy would not be approved as vendors, and current vendors would have their county deals revoked until they sign.

“My only goal is good policy and full disclosure by vendors, so the County can monitor outcomes and make necessary decisions with full knowledge,” Cochran-Johnson said.

Federal authorities accuse The Renee Group founder and CEO Sehlitha Robertson of involvement in a scheme to submit fraudulent loan applications to the federal government under a program intended to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.

Court documents allege that Robertson, a 60-year-old former Atlanta police officer and assistant city attorney, inflated staffing numbers at four companies she owned in order to pocket more than $7 million. The allegations are not related to her work for the county.

She’s accused of spending part of the proceeds on a Rolls-Royce and a 10-carat diamond ring reportedly valued at $128,000.

For her part, Robertson denied wrongdoing and blamed her co-defendant Chandra Norton, Robertson’s former business partner and also a former DeKalb County sewer contractor. Norton, disbarred as a lawyer in January, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud conspiracy in November 2020 but hasn’t been sentenced because she was acting as an informant to build the case against Robertson.

DeKalb cut ties with Norton’s firm CamKen Consulting in 2022 after the AJC reported her indictment.

Between 2016 and the end of 2022, DeKalb had paid The Renee Group about $78.1 million under various contracts, according to financial documents obtained by the AJC through the Georgia Open Records Act.

That includes about $8.2 million of an expected $30.5 million contract for work mandated under a federal consent decree. DeKalb is required to spend more than a billion dollars for sewer repairs to stop spills and comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

The Renee Group was authorized to finish pipe installation already underway, but not to start any new tasks, according to DeKalb County.

As of early February, The Renee Group still had three contracts with DeKalb County, which county officials said were “either in its final stages, complete or new work has been temporarily suspended.” That included a recent $58 million agreement for on-call water and sewer repairs.

A county spokesperson said that contract was “fully executed” on Dec. 6, but The Renee Group had not received county authorization to do any work under that contract.

That was the same day federal charges against Robertson were announced.

The county imposed a stop-work order on The Renee Group, halting more than $80 million in projects, but that “has no immediate impact on the consent decree work,” a county spokesperson said.

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