DA Porter says he will keep hunting shady land purchases

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

LAWRENCEVILLE -- District Attorney Danny Porter began building investigations into questionable land purchases by the government years ago.

As the county bought land deemed "swamp land" or a Daily Post investigation revealed officials bought land from a developer days before it was purchased from someone else, Porter presented them, individually, to grand juries, only to be told the group did not have the time or inclination to dig.

Only this year, by empaneling a special grand jury tasked only with looking into the deals did Porter get the tools he needed to finally nail down the cases.

"All of these transactions my office has been looking into a number of years," Porter said, explaining that the district attorney does not have the power to subpoena corporate records or bank accounts without a grand jury. "I went into it with a really open mind," until the evidence was revealed.

Even though the special grand jury has wrapped up its work, indicting Commissioner Kevin Kenerly and presenting its report this month, Porter said there could be more.

"This investigation is not over from my perspective," Porter said. "We'd asked enough of these people. (Grand jurors) had done a lot of heavy lifting."

Porter described the grand jury as a cross-section of Gwinnett, a diverse group both in terms of gender and race that varied in socioeconomic status from a welder to a business executive.

"The grand jurors themselves, the 23 people who got plucked out of their daily lives deserve a tremendous amount of credit," he said, adding that they spent more than 150 hours in sessions twice each month, plus time spent on a secured website set up to give access to the thousands of documents presented in the cases. "They really worked hard and made suggestions they thought would improve Gwinnett County. It was an affirmation that the system does work when you have citizens involved."

The presentments showed some cloudy proceedings and blasted commissioners for failing to understand the process or having political motives, but only one transaction was deemed illegal. In that purchase, Kenerly is accused of taking 20 $50,000 payments for facilitating a favorable deal for a developer.

Former Chairman Charles Bannister avoided indictment by resigning his position, but the charge he faced was for inconsistent testimony to the grand jury, not actions during a land transaction.

Porter said he isn't disappointed that there was not more corruption unearthed.

"There were things that looked odd initially but once you had all the evidence, they were explained," he said.

The grand jury report said that the group decided to look into five of 17 transactions that met certain criteria. They did not look into the Gwinnett Stadium deal, and a previous grand jury also declined to consider that purchase. But Porter said he will keep in the hunt for information about questionable purchases.

He said he supports suggestions such as making part-time district commissioners full time, so they can have more time to research proposals and rely on district courtesy less.

"I would hope the legislative delegation takes note of this report," he said.

In the short term, though, the actions of the grand jury have left the Board of Commissioners in a precarious situation.

With Bannister off the board and Kenerly facing a possible suspension from the governor's office, the board could soon be left with just three commissioners to finish the year -- the amount needed for a quorum or a vote on anything. And before January, the county must prepare a budget that, among other government responsibilities, funds the district attorney's office.

"I don't know if that will have an effect or not," Porter said. "I've always felt considerations like that shouldn't control my actions. I can't present my indictment that the grand jury asked me to prepare and think we won't have enough commissioners. I presented the evidence. Then I had to let the chips fall where they may."