Shoddy jobs and bathroom bribes robbed Georgia taxpayers of millions

WRITER’S NOTE: The following is a monthly compilation of alleged or documented stories about waste, fraud or abuse of taxpayer money or taxpayer-funded resources throughout Georgia. Material was gathered using government documents, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s original reporting and/or previously published news articles.

Someone overlooked the fine print: Members of the Whitfield County Board of Education accepted but then misused nearly $130,000 from federal taxpayers via the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund program.

This is according to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts (DOAA).

“Testing revealed that a payment was made to the staffing company utilized by the School District to provide ‘retention’ bonuses to both transportation and school nutrition contractors who were not employees of the school district,” according to the audit.

“These individuals were assigned to work within the school district by the private staffing company. Per review of the contract in place during the fiscal year under review, it was noted that these bonuses represented amounts more than the agreed upon price. Furthermore, the school district does not have the authority or ability to retain these individuals, as they were not employees of the school district. Contract provisions requiring the individuals to remain employed by the private staffing company and in the service of the school district for a stated period were not reflected within the associated contract.”

If it was your own money, you would never make a mistake this big: Congress established an Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) through the American Rescue Plan Act so public school students could have advanced telecommunications equipment to help with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Members of the Baldwin County Board of Education accepted nearly $1 million of this in addition to ESSER funding but misused more than $26,000 of it, according to the Georgia DOAA.

“Expenditures for wireless service totaling $26,460 were approved through the budget process and recorded under both the ECF program and the ESSER program,” according to an audit.

“Upon further review, it was noted that reimbursement was requested and received through the ESSER program during fiscal year 2022 and the ECF program after year-end. Additionally, a refund of such funding had not been processed for either of the programs as of the end of audit fieldwork. Therefore, duplicate federal funding was received for the same expenditure.”

A terrible, pathetic cut and paste job: A private developer accepted more than half a million dollars in taxpayer money from the Clayton County Board of Commissioners. Now, citing sloppy work, the Board wants that money back. 

According to 11Alive, commissioners hired development group Roman United to develop a proposed $800 million project in Lake City. That project would have included a county-run business incubator, high-rise condominiums, offices, a hotel and an amphitheater.   

The county paid Roman United $559,000 to create a seven-page PowerPoint presentation, a 27-page design presentation and a 49-page seismic data and wind presentation.

Roman United is based out of Atlanta. 

Commissioner Alieka Anderson called the company’s presentation, “terrible,” “pathetic” and resembling “something that had been taken off a website, cut and paste and just thrown on a piece of paper.” 

“We’ve got to put our differences aside and stop giving our money to these shell companies that don’t exist and doing what we’re supposed to do for the people,” 11Alive quoted Anderson as saying. 

“I want the $559,000 back. I don’t care how you all get it back. Ad litem, sue, do whatever you’ve got to do.”

Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services Director Landry Merkison said Roman United missed a Dec. 31, 2022, deadline to submit all materials.

Roman United officials, however, said they didn’t miss any contractual benchmarks and had routinely updated county staff about the project via bi-weekly Zoom calls.

Doesn’t this normally happen under the table?: The former executive vice president of the Atlanta-based PRAD Group Inc. pleaded guilty last month to bribing two City of Atlanta officials and a former DeKalb County official.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), that same PRAD executive, Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari, also pleaded guilty to evading more than $1.5 million in taxes. 

From 1984 to 2018, PRAD was an architectural, design and construction management firm that performed services for Atlanta and DeKalb County.

Jafari gave Atlanta’s then-Chief Procurement Office (CPO) Adam Smith and then-Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina cash and other items of value to obtain business with the city. 

“In exchange for those payments, Smith and Macrina conspired with Jafari to ensure that PRAD Group received city business worth millions of dollars, including by agreeing to replace two evaluators on the selection team for the city’s architectural and engineering contract and to re-score an evaluation so that Jafari’s company would be awarded a contract,” according to the DOJ.

“During Smith’s tenure as the CPO, the City of Atlanta awarded contracts worth millions of dollars to PRAD Group and joint venture projects of which PRAD Group was a partner. For years, Jafari met privately with Smith on multiple occasions, frequently at local restaurants. During these meetings, Jafari and Smith discussed City of Atlanta procurement projects, bids and solicitations, often while Jafari was actively seeking additional work and/or assistance with ongoing city projects. After most of the meetings, Jafari paid Smith $1,000 in cash in the bathroom of the restaurant.” 

From at least 2014 to January 2017, Jafari paid Smith more than $40,000 in cash.

Between 2013 through May 2016, Macrina met with Jafari to discuss city procurement projects, bids and solicitations, often while Jafari was actively seeking contracts, projects and work with the city. To obtain city work, Jafari promised Macrina a lucrative job with PRAD Group and, directly or through a PRAD Group employee, gave Macrina $10,000 in cash, jewelry, a room at a luxury hotel and an upscale shopping trip in Dubai and landscaping work at her home. Shortly after the city fired her, Macrina began working for Jafari and PRAD Group. Between June and September 2016, Jafari and/or PRAD Group paid Macrina $30,000 in four separate payments.

The FBI later conducted two undercover operations using a confidential source, who was then a high-ranking DeKalb County official. The confidential source met with Jafari at local restaurants and tried to obtain work in DeKalb County. Jafari directed the confidential source to the bathroom and paid the source between $1,000 and $1,500.    

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