From the Peach Pundit.
I’m dumping my notes today, simply to keep from being swept up by events. Things are moving fast in DeKalb County. Beware – I plan to speculate today.
No one knows Ismail. Only, everyone knows Ismail, if you get me.
I stopped in at El Matador in February. It’s one of the restaurants owned by Sirdah Enterprises. I asked for the owner. The staff knew the guy is named Ismail, but that’s all they knew. They pronounced the name “Ishmael.” They have no way to contact him, a server told me. Try the number on the posters on the club next door, she said.
“Leave your name and your number, and if he wants to talk to you, he’ll call,” the nameless young man on the other end of the line said with surprising candor. I asked for Ismail’s last name. “Man, I don’t know.” I hung up. Other numbers led to phone mail that was full or phone mail that wasn’t set up or wrong numbers.
A couple of days later, I stopped in at Lulu Billiares, a dimly-lit pool joint and restaurant next door. The bouncer approached me, all smiles, in exactly the way bouncers do when they’re trying to figure out if they have to tank someone’s aggro; hands forward and open, weight on the balls of the feet. I asked for Ismail. He stopped for a moment, trying to assess whether I might be a cop or a creditor, before answering too casually that he doesn’t know anyone named Ishmael.
He asked the guy unloading liquor if he knew. Ishmael would be back in the office tomorrow around 10 a.m., the guy replied in Spanish. Someone didn’t get the memo.
Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Atlanta indicted Ismail Sirdah on a count of bribery. Sirdah pleaded guilty last week.
Coincidentally, the name on the marquee of the club changed later in the day I visited to “La Vaca Billiards.”
The club, right next to the offices of Lulu Productions, kitty corner to the El Noa Noa club at the end of dingy little Pittsburg Plaza in Tucker, has suddenly become the most politically important strip mall in DeKalb County.
People in Tucker plan to form a city. One of the reasons Tucker partisans give when asked why has been rampant DeKalb County corruption. Incorporated cities can take over services from the county, like the planning and zoning process.
That might have seemed like a small thing. But the FBI’s bust of a zoning board official for taking bribes to keep a shady night club open rather illustrates the problem.
The FBI’s news release touting the guilty plea of now-disgraced zoning board of appeals member Jerry Clark said that a “late-night establishment in Tucker” was under instruction from the planning department to stop operating as a nightclub, because they weren’t zoned for it.
Only Lulu Billiards matched the description in the November 2012 meeting minutes of the DeKalb ZBA. Lulu Promotions And Music Llc was the applicant. And Ismail Sirdah owns that firm, along with a half-dozen others.
Two proposed cities — Tucker and LaVista Hills — have been battling over borders for about two years. The busy street corner where Chamblee-Tucker Road bends into Tucker-Norcross Road had been the edge of disputed territory, fought over block by block in legislative committee hearings late last year. It’s commercial property, which helps the tax base of any city containing it. But its filled with the kind of businesses that give the vapors to folks with class pretensions. Pool halls. Car shops. A club catering to Latinos.
Somehow, when the dust settled in the committee room, Pittsburg Plaza managed to find itself a jagged corner of the Tucker map.
And then … it wasn’t. State Sen. Fran Millar, the cantankerous Republican representing north DeKalb, decided to screw State Rep. Scott Holcomb with a map change.
Millar said he moved the Livsey precinct and assorted territory into LaVista Hills because residents there told him that they would rather be there than Tucker. The House special committee determined otherwise, but, whatever.
I’m a cynical, miserable bastard of course, so it was hard not to notice that the change just happens to shift territory in Holcomb’s district that he carried by thin margins relative to his stronger base of support in Doraville and Chamblee. The area contains about 2000 expected votes … and about 500 votes in the area of Holcomb’s district now remaining in Tucker.
Holcomb, an Iraq War veteran and attorney, holds a nominally-Republican district as a Democrat, and is widely considered a future candidate for statewide office, though he may move elsewhere. The margin of his victories is a shift of about 900 votes in a presidential election year or 350 votes in an off year. And the map change leaves Holcomb perched between Scylla and Charybdis, with some number of Tucker supporters ready to punish him if he goes along with it and some number of Livsey voters ready to punish him if he doesn’t.
“It is time for Democratic State Representative Scott Holcomb to step up and get his caucus to support the Agree votes in the House,” Millar said. That might be read as “Eat me, Holcomb. Talk your way out of this, pretty-boy.”
After the assembled masses in the House pitched a fit, Tucker, LaVista Hills and Millar cut a deal. LaVista Hills got most of the voters. Tucker got … Lulu Billares.
I’ve been quietly watching the fall of Sirdah, Clark and Patrick Jackson for a little while now. Jackson, DeKalb’s head of custodial services also somehow managed to be a full-time employee for the Georgia World Congress Center … and on the take with a contractor as well. He pleaded guilty on federal charges last week, too.
Jackson is almost certainly looking at jail time, given how blatant his crimes were.
Clark is small fry, but he got Sirdah. Now Sirdah’s back is up against the wall. Sirdah lost a $300,000 judgment in January for mistreating waitstaff at Taboo in Sandy Springs. He tried and failed to file for bankruptcy. The court rejected his filing because he didn’t disclose his assets properly. His plea comes with a recommended sentence of a year and a day. He wouldn’t get that deal without something to give.
The nightclubs he owns or runs promotions for through Lulu Promotions — the now-defunct Echelon 3000, Coco Cabana at Tucker Festival, La Rumba in Doraville on Buford Highway and others — have long been a sore spot for DeKalb Police, but are also the sort of places police officers might have been earning a living as an off-duty security side gig … or to look the other way when permit violations occurred. After the mass arrest of area police a couple of years ago for protecting drug dealers, I suspect (ah, that word) the FBI has had antennae up for more. This may be their way to get at a deeper problem in the force, and have nothing at all to do with political corruption.
On the other hand, Sirdah is a heavy political donor, maxing out to Vernon Jones’ goofy Senate campaign in 2008 and donating to other candidates, both statewide and in DeKalb and Clayton County.
Clark begat Sirdah. Sirdah and Jackson beget … who? The three soon-to-be cooperating witnesses are dominoes falling. The question is where the line ends.
To note what is surely just a coincidence, the same day the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued an indictment on Sirdah, Morris Williams, the long-time insider in DeKalb County government, resigned without warning. Retired, actually. So did some folks in watershed management.
Williams hasn’t been charged with anything. He may not ever be charged with anything. But he knows everything.
Williams has been in DeKalb government since the Liane Levitan administration. He served as chief of staff for the commission for years. He served under both Burrell Ellis and Vernon Jones. He is the one person who almost certainly knows where all the bodies are buried. And — I note merely for the record — retiring before refusing questions from Lee May’s investigators means his pension can’t be jeopardized by a firing for cause.
If it seems like there’s crazy corruption under every surface of this county, you could hardly be blamed.
Burrell Ellis, DeKalb’s elected chief executive, escaped conviction on corruption charges last year by a single juror’s vote. The hung jury extended the fetor of unresolved charges hanging over the county.
As long as May serves as CEO – and chooses not to resign the District 5 commission seat – the chair representing about half of south DeKalb’s voters remains empty.
That screws up county government, of course. But it also massively complicates federal prosecutions. Suppose (there’s that speculative word) the FBI planned to indict one or more county commissioners. The DoJ might be credibly accused of disenfranchising African-American voters right in the middle of a serious political question — the incorporation movement. Never mind all the zoning and planning and purchasing decisions that would have to be held.
Still, that’s already a problem. Commissioner Stan Watson works on the side for a politically-connected developer, Vaughn Irons … who happened to be the head of DeKalb’s development board before May unceremoniously defenestrated him last month. Irons started drawing fire in February when he thought it a good idea to try to build something akin to a casino with hundreds of grotty video lottery terminals in South DeKalb.
The commission approved it … and then had to take it back after discovering that their vote didn’t pass legal muster. The law requires a commissioner representing the district to approve it. May can’t vote while he’s acting CEO. And Watson, whose superdistrict overlaps the parcel, can’t vote because he’s on the developer’s payroll.
Watson has been trying to lower his profile since June, after the AJC hilariously caught him trying to hide his connection to two now-convicted men facing public corruption charges in South Carolina. So much for that.
The media then discovered that Irons’ firm, APD Solutions, had somehow managed to obtain a written ethics waiver in 2011 allowing it to bid on millions of dollars in county contracts, even though no one on the ethics board says they actually issued it. Watson voted on these contracts, despite black-letter law requiring him to recuse himself.
Irons told me to “be careful” a few weeks ago, after reading my opinion on Facebook about his predicament. “My explanations are clear,” he said in a Facebook message. “The reporting is biased and incomplete. I’m looking forward to the investigation which will clear me of ANY wrong doing. As I said you’ll eat your words soon enough and I’ll be waiting eagerly awaiting your apology from you and others.”
Anyway, May’s absence has tied the commission into knots … which I’m beginning to suspect is purposeful. Even by DeKalb County standards, we’re at Wagnerian levels of infighting. Last month, Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton took the not-at-all-suspicious step of filing a Georgia Open Records Act request to see email from May, the district attorney and other commissioners, hoping to determine who might be cooperating with the FBI or state investigators in a criminal probe of her.
That looks completely insane, of course. I have a pet theory to explain it.
Last year, it became clear that the FBI has every commissioner’s phone tapped and was watching contracting. Right around then, the county started considering big land deals. A 3-3 deadlock scuttled financially-questionable plans for DeKalb to buy a YMCA for $5 million, for example. The not-a-casino in South DeKalb was tied into an Indian gaming company in Louisiana, and would have been worth millions.
I suggest two possibilities. (More speculation.) The FBI could have told May and other commissioners to stall for time while they build their case. Prevent big moves until we have enough evidence to convict bad actors, they could have been told. May’s empty seat helps prevent the commission from making big deals, the kind that might come with money under the table. Money for lawyers. Money for friends. Money for plane tickets to Argentina. That might explain a fishing expedition by a sitting commissioner.
A more dire possibility: May is deliberately protecting people by remaining the interim CEO. Leaving the District 5 seat open may be an informal block to further indictments.
Or, May could simply be protecting his seat from being filled so he can return to it after this is over, or to prevent it from being filled by someone he doesn’t trust. Given the circumstances, trust is a rare commodity.
District Attorney Robert James is undoubtedly coming under pressure to settle the Ellis case one way or another. A deal that removes him from office — even if it doesn’t ultimately send him to jail — might be considered a victory for good governance … if not justice. But James doesn’t have the power to compel the feds not to turn around and indict Ellis themselves, which might (even more speculation) make Ellis reluctant to accept any deal while he has a tenuous grasp on elected office as leverage.
Enough speculating. The dominoes are falling. We’ll know soon enough.