Attorney to probe GCPS land deals

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

LAWRENCEVILLE — Gwinnett County Public Schools is hiring a private attorney to conduct an independent investigation of the district’s land transactions since 1999 to determine if any criminal activity has occurred.

The Gwinnett County Board of Education voted Tuesday evening to authorize the district’s attorney to hire Joe D. Whitley, chair of the Atlanta White Collar Practice Group, to conduct the third-party assessment of the transactions. The discussion of the action took place in executive session, but the board voted in open session in a special called meeting held before the area board meeting at Brookwood High School.

Whitley now works in private practice, but he previously served as the U.S. Attorney in the Middle (Macon) and Northern (Atlanta) Federal Districts of Georgia.

The board’s action followed articles published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that question the integrity of the school district’s land acquisition process.

“In acquiring the sites for new schools, I believe our staff went about the people’s business with the appropriate objectives in mind — our commitment to obtain the best site at the best possible price and to compensate the property owners fairly, as the law requires,” Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said in a written statement. “However, it is important that not only are we confident internally of the propriety of our actions, but also that Gwinnett residents feel the same level of assurance and trust.”

Since 1999, school district employees have conducted 95 land transactions, 76 of which resulted in sites being purchased for less than the appraised value, Wilbanks said. In eight transactions, the property was purchased at the appraised value, he said.

In acquiring the remaining 11 sites, Wilbanks said the district was “forced to take the route of condemnation.” He said the courts ordered the district to pay on average 26 percent more than the appraised value for 10 of the sites, and one transaction was reduced to 3 percent below appraisal.

“This stewardship by our staff over the past 12 years allowed us to acquire school sites for $37.5 million less than the appraised value, resulting in tremendous savings for Gwinnett County taxpayers while enabling us to build new schools and additions that provided more than 3,000 classrooms to house our growing student population,” Wilbanks said.

Whitley has agreed to conduct the investigation beginning immediately, Wilbanks said. The final report is expected in six to eight weeks and will be released publicly.

Gwinnett County Public Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said the district is paying Whitley for the investigation, but the amount he will be paid was not available Tuesday night.