by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - A whistle-blower who helped send two DeKalb County employees to prison for extortion thinks he's now the victim of retaliation.
G.S. Construction was the lowest bidder on a project late last year to replace aging water lines along Henderson and Briarlake roads. The company even received a letter of congratulations from the county's workforce program. But when it came time for commissioners to vote on the contract, county staff recommended two other companies, costing taxpayers an additional $274,151.
"The most ridiculous part is it's the job of the purchasing department to safeguard taxpayer dollars, and I had to take them to court to do their job," said G.S. Construction CEO Alessandro Salvo.
Salvo said he tried reasoning with the county's procurement director, Kelvin Walton, who pointed out an error in the G.S. Construction bid documents. Salvo explained that it was merely a typographical error and corrected it immediately. That was a month before the contracts were awarded to Rockdale Pipeline and Layne Inliner.
"Honestly, I was in shock. I've got 17 employees that all were supposed to be out on those jobs," said Salvo.
He sued the county and earlier this month, Judge Linda Hunter awarded the contract back to G.S. Construction. The county decided not to appeal the ruling, however one of the vendors the county selected still could, which would put the project back on hold.
In court, Hunter said, "I just don't understand why the Board of Commissioners rejected the petitioner's bid when they were in compliance a full month and a half before they ever voted which bid to accept."
But Salvo thinks he knows why.
"Maybe it's because of the help we gave to law enforcement in getting people in trouble in DeKalb County. I have no evidence but it's kind of fishy the way this all went down," Salvo told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.
For the first time, Salvo and his father are talking about their year undercover, assisting the FBI in bringing down two corrupt DeKalb County employees.
G.S. Construction had a 2011 contract to replace sidewalks along South Hairston Road and first noticed a problem with their assigned county inspector, Neacacha Joyner.
"We started to get suspicious when the inspector started to give us a lot of trouble about everything. Then, she asked my father to borrow $500. Suddenly, she was much nicer and things got approved faster," said Salvo, "Once they feel you out and see that you're in, then they try a little more. First it was. ‘Borrow $500,’ then it was, ‘Let's overbill $4,000.’"
That's when the Salvos contacted the FBI.
"Somebody has to put their foot down at some point and say 'No, I'm not going to do this,'" said Salvo.
For the next year they worked undercover, making audio recordings of conversations, and video recordings while paying cash bribes.
"They would just tell you, ‘Here, overbill x amount of dollars, you keep half and I'll take the other half.’ And what I would think is, 'What a bunch of crooks,'” said Salvo.
They paid Joyner and her boss, Fidelis Ogbu, nearly $30,000 in cash and were about to hand over another $10,000 when federal agents moved in, arresting the pair for extortion and bribery. They're both now in federal prison.
"I was just in shock that they were so blatant about stealing our tax dollars," said Salvo.
He watched with interest as DeKalb County's district attorney appointed a special grand jury to investigate allegations of bribes and bid rigging throughout the county's watershed department. That investigation expanded to include allegations of contract manipulation in other departments.
In June, a criminal grand jury indicted DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis on 15 counts, including theft by taking and criminal attempt to commit theft by extortion. The allegations are unrelated to the G.S. Construction contract, but Salvo said it fits with the mentality he observed among county workers.
"There's a lot of people down in the middle where the real theft is happening and that needs to be rooted out. Just going after the CEO is not going to solve the problem," said Salvo.
He is left wondering whether his contract was the victim of a retaliation attempt. He was dealing directly with procurement director, Kelvin Walton, who is named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Ellis indictment.
In a statement, new interim CEO Lee May said the county “requires bidders to strictly adhere to the rules” and “the county's actions in this bid were aligned with our procurement process and nothing more.”
May said the county would review current procedures to make sure all vendors are treated fairly.
Salvo hopes the attention on all of these cases will bring change, if he eventually gets to replace those water lines.
"I just want to go to work,” said Salvo.