by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
Paul Champion says he never intended to be a whistleblower, a grand jury witness, or the subject of a criminal investigation. He ended up becoming all three, after filing a lawsuit demanding payment for $880,000 in tree cutting services he performed under a county contract.
"That wasn't my intention to bring to light corruption at the county, I just wanted to get paid for what we did," Champion told Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer during an exclusive interview.
Champion said at first he couldn't understand what was holding up his payments, so he asked for a meeting with DeKalb County Purchasing and Contracting Director Kelvin Walton.
"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 says Walton suggested meeting after hours in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
"Everything all of a sudden became pretty clear," said Champion, "Kelvin expected to have been paid."
Champion says Walton's exact words were 'I haven't been shown any love,' accompanied by a hand gesture signifying cash.
"Actually I was in disbelief, I was like wow," said Champion, who recounted the conversation for prosecutors and a special grand jury investigating allegations of corruption within DeKalb County government.
A simultaneous criminal investigation ensued, which ultimately led to the indictment of then-CEO Burrell Ellis. Walton's name appears several times throughout the Ellis indictment.
"[Walton] has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator, a criminal act that involves bribery, payoffs and the like in the county," said Champion's attorney Bob Wilson, "That's significant. It is not to be taken lightly and yet [Walton] remains in his position. I don't much care for the idea of the fox guarding the henhouse."
Wilson previously served 12 years as DeKalb County District Attorney. He says prosecutors typically name someone an unindicted co-conspirator after entering into an agreement not to prosecute, in exchange for sworn testimony.
The Ellis indictment accuses Walton of conspiring with Ellis to keep vendors from getting additional county business if they refused to donate to the CEO's campaign, which Wilson says violates a number of county policies.
"To, under those circumstances, allow [Walton] to have any control over placing contracts, awarding contracts, overseeing contracts, and the expenditure of funds, both for contracts and general purchases I think is negligence per se," said Wilson.
Walton has worked for DeKalb County for 10 years and earns $153,000.
"I have directed our Law Department to hire outside counsel to investigate all current employees mentioned in the Special Grand Jury report who may have violated county policy. I will reserve final judgment on all employees until the facts are in at that time," said Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May.
Sources tell Channel 2 prosecutors have not released any additional information regarding Walton's role in the case to the county. That would likely include the results of two GBI administered polygraph examinations.
"Our client passed it. There was no deception shown," Wilson said of Paul Champion's test, even providing a copy of the document to Channel 2.
Wilson says prosecutors shared information regarding Kelvin Walton's test as well.
"[Walton] did not pass the polygraph. As best I understand it, and what we have been told is that the results were inconclusive," said Wilson.
Wilson said prosecutors have not disclosed their intentions regarding criminal investigations into Champion and others recommended in the special grand jury report.
In Champion's pending civil case, DeKalb County has accused him of fraud, theft and racketeering, alleging he overbilled $3 million for work that was not done.
"Why in the world would my client have authorized us to bring this suit if he was involved in corruption himself?" Wilson quipped, "He understood beforehand, this is going to open some real cans of worms."
Champion said he worries about how the county is operating now with Walton still on the job.
"He's in charge of all the county's contracts and therefore pretty much all the county's money," Champion said.
Wilson expressed disappointment in prosecutors' apparent deal with Walton, but applauded the courage of current District Attorney Robert James.
"I've got to give him credit for digging into something a lot of people were wishing he hadn't put a shovel into," said Wilson, adding that he would not prejudge James' decision to use Walton as a witness.
But Wilson says the county has an even bigger duty to taxpayers.
"There can be no question regarding the integrity of those individuals who head up departments of purchasing and contracting. Given the allegations of what has gone on, I would think there should be serious concern about maintaining him in that position," said Wilson.