• Governor reacts to Channel 2 investigation of DeKalb project

    By: Jodie Fleischer

    Updated:

    DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - UPDATE -- Dec. 5:

    A governor's spokesman says he cannot appoint someone to fill an open DeKalb County commission seat, which means 140,000 residents will go unrepresented even longer.

    DeKalb CEO Lee May asked the governor to fill the open district 5 seat this week after a Channel 2 Action News investigation exposed questions about a new gaming development approved there.

    The seat has been empty since May left to take the CEO’s job after the indictment of Burrell Ellis in 2013.

    May has not yet resigned his commission seat in case Ellis is acquitted and returns to the CEO job.

    The governor says May must officially resign from the seat and hold a special election to fill it.

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    DeKalb County's CEO has asked Gov. Nathan Deal to immediately fill a vacant commission seat, giving roughly 140,000 residents representation they've been lacking for 18 months.

    The move comes after a Channel 2 Action News investigation exposed questions about an approved project within that district.

    The Panola Slope project sits along Covington Highway, in District 5, and promises an adult entertainment bar-arcade concept, restaurants, and a luxury resort.

    Monday investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer revealed a zoning approval for the site which also allows up to 425 gambling machines at that location. 

    "These are questions I would have asked if I would have had a vote," said Lee May, who occupied the District 5 seat before leaving to become CEO in 2013.

    May says the remaining commissioners have been playing politics with the open seat, refusing to confirm his appointment, George Turner, and that a representative in that seat might have better scrutinized the Panola Slope project before it was approved.

    "I've read through the application, for the first time last night after I saw your report," May told Fleischer, "And it's clear as day they're asking for virtual coin operated machines. It's on page 3 of their application that the board of commissioners approved."

    The developer, Vaughn Irons of APD Solutions, also happens to head-up the county's development authority.

    May did not know the plan included up to 425 video gambling machines prior to watching Fleischer's investigation.

    Currently the most gambling machines allowed anywhere in Georgia is 14, at a convenience store in Henry County.

    May and several commissioners also did not know Irons sold the land to Red Alligator LLC, incorporated under the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, nine months before commissioners approved the project. The tribe operates The Paragon Casino Resort on its reservation in Marksville, Louisiana.

    When she traveled to the reservation, the vice chairman told Fleischer the tribe has no ability to turn Panola Slope into a real casino, just a good investment.

    "We're well known for our food in Louisiana. We're trying to bring that to DeKalb County, a great time, great entertainment," said Marshall Sampson, who also serves as Red Alligator's CEO.

    May said all of those revelations about the deal might have been uncovered on the front end if there was a commissioner in the District 5 seat.

    "You never want to ask an outside entity to come in to do that, but it has gotten so bad now where District 5 is concerned that someone has to make a decision," said May.

    Late Tuesday, a governor's spokesman emailed Channel 2 Action News saying, “there would need to be vacancy for the governor to appoint a replacement, and he can't do that unless he receives a letter from May resigning the seat.”

    A May spokesperson says DeKalb County's attorney interpreted that differently and is currently reviewing the issue.

    May did not officially resign from District 5 when he took the CEO's job, just in case the ousted CEO, Burrell Ellis, were to get acquitted of corruption charges and want his old job back.

    Deal filling the District 5 seat could also mean trouble for Panola Slope; he has strongly opposed anything even resembling a casino in Georgia.

     "I am not in the mood for having anything that is a casino or even comes close to resembling a casino," Deal told Fleischer.

    The governor has never wavered from his anti-gambling position and even with Georgia Lottery rules prohibiting cash payouts; he says the Channel 2 investigation caught his attention.

    "It sure looked like a casino to me," said Deal of the Panola Slope zoning approval, "I'm not sure that without a constitutional amendment the Lottery Commission has the authority to go that far."

    Representatives from the project met with lottery staff to ask questions, but have not yet filed any applications for the necessary licenses.

    Irons told Fleischer the project would not be a casino.

    "I think that's a ridiculous notion," he said. "I'm not a gambling operator; I'm a very concerned citizen of the county."

    But now the governor is concerned about the number of machines, and this new project could prompt additional legislation addressing the issue.

    "It's something we'll certainly look into and be exploring," Deal said.

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