by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - A major figure in DeKalb County's corruption investigation is speaking out for the first time about his role in the case, his testimony before the Special Grand Jury and allegations that a county official asked him to pay a kickback.
In an exclusive interview with Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer, Paul Champion, owner of Champion Tree Service, said he's still surprised how widespread the investigation has become.
"That wasn't my intention to bring to light corruption at the county. I just wanted to get paid for what we did. We did a good job; we did what the county asked us to do," said Champion.
Champion admittedly made millions of dollars during several contracts to cut trees and clear easements so another company could map the county's storm water lines. But in February 2010, Champion filed a lawsuit alleging DeKalb County owed his business more than $880,000 for completed work. The county fired back, alleging fraud, theft and racketeering against Champion, saying he over-billed for $3 million in work that hadn't been done.
"What idiot would bring a suit when they themselves were involved in criminal activity?" quipped Champion's attorney Bob Wilson. "Our client wasn't involved in criminal activity. Was there a fire raging around him? Oh yeah."
Wilson said Champion fully cooperated with prosecutors as they pursued a Special Purpose Grand Jury investigation. Nonetheless, the grand jury included Champion in its list of a dozen individuals recommended for further criminal investigation.
"I was pretty upset ... I told them the truth," Champion said. "I definitely feel like a victim."
Champion said he testified in detail regarding his relationship with several others who are also recommended for criminal investigation, including Hadi Haeri, a well-connected consultant.
"Absolutely without a doubt, he did things I could not do," said Champion, including managing billing, paperwork and technology.
Haeri's sister-in-law, Nadine Maghsoudlou, was a deputy director at the DeKalb Watershed Department, and had a hand in selecting contract winners. Haeri is alleged to have made millions of dollars doing bogus consulting for companies that won the contracts.
"The assistant DA says, ‘You could have paid somebody a whole lot less money to do what he did,’" Champion said. "I'm like, ‘Yeah, but I would have had to babysit them all day long and hold their hand while I need to be out in the woods.’"
Champion maintains his testimony was limited by the questions prosecutors asked, leaving some of his side of the story untold.
"There's a tremendous amount of information they didn't hear. They got a little snippet and then had to make a humongous assessment," said Champion.
For example, DeKalb County has accused Champion of billing more than once to clear the same section of land. Champion said that's because some projects took so long to get started, the brush and shrubs had already grown back and had to be cleared a second time before work could begin. He said all of his work was inspected and approved by county employees before he submitted the bills.
"My county supervisor said, ‘Hey you're doing a great job. You make me look good,’" said Champion. But toward the end of his last contract, that same supervisor offered advice: "Going forward in DeKalb County, you need a black face on your company," Champion recounted.
Champion said that's why he approached his childhood friend, Christian Vann, to start a new company called ACE Environmental to bid on the contract. Vann initially intended to have Champion's employees perform the work.
"Originally we were together; we were going to be one company. So we met, I filled out the form with him," said Champion.
However, the two had a falling out prior to the close of the bidding process and Champion ended up submitting his own competing bid independently. But the county selected ACE Environmental for the $2 million contract, despite the company having no employees and no tree cutting equipment.
"Then I knew there was some corruption somewhere," said Champion, adding that he approached DeKalb County Purchasing and Contracting Director Kelvin Walton to alert him to what had transpired.
"I said, ‘Look, your due diligence on this is going to look really bad,’" recounted Champion. "And rather than say this guy [ACE] doesn't even qualify, they ended up getting him on lack of performance."
Champion said he also approached Walton to discuss his outstanding bills the county had not paid, meeting after hours in a Walmart parking lot.
"I wanted to find out, ‘Hey what's the problem? What's going on?’ We had a previous relationship where I feel like he was pretty straightforward with me," said Champion.
Champion said he was shocked by Walton's response, which amounted to a shakedown for a kickback.
Prosecutors have since named Walton an unindicted co-conspirator in the pending criminal case against ousted CEO Burrell Ellis.
Tune in to Channel 2 Action News at 6 p.m. on Friday to hear what Champion told the grand jury and prosecutors about that encounter with Walton, and the results of his GBI administered polygraph.
Plus, Wilson, who is also a former DeKalb district attorney, raises serious questions about Walton maintaining his role in county government despite the pending allegations.