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Report: Nothing criminal in GCPS land deals

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

SUWANEE -- A third-party investigation into Gwinnett County Public Schools' land acquisition practices found a handful of policy violation, but no evidence of criminal or unethical conduct, Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said Thursday.

The investigation team, headed by former U.S. attorney and white collar crime specialist Joe Whitley, probed 95 land purchases from 1999 to 2009, focusing primarily on 16 transactions. The review took about three months to complete, and the team looked at more than 175,000 documents and interviewed 53 people, 32 of whom were connected with the school district.

"I think up front (the report) makes it very clear that there were absolutely no findings of any criminal or unethical behavior," Wilbanks said. "There was not any evidence whatsoever that someone gave information, confidential information to anyone. There was no evidence whatsoever that anyone profited, or even tried to profit, from either giving information or working out a deal ... all that's very clear without exception.

"They also remind us that we aren't perfect, but where we aren't perfect, there was nothing that was done ... where something wasn't followed to the letter. It had no impact upon the price or the land or anything."

Wilbanks said the investigation found instances when staff members did not follow board policy in the site acquisition process, primarily because of a misinterpretation. The report states, however, that in at least three instances school sites were purchased without board approval.

School board Chairman Robert McClure said those purchases were of parcels of land connected to other parcels that had been purchased with board approval. While he said he understood how someone could misinterpret board policy in that situation, he said he does not believe the purchases should have been made without board approval.

The report also outlines 12 policy recommendations and six procedural improvements that the district can make. All of those will be reviewed, and the board's land acquisition policy -- which has been on the table since April -- will be updated accordingly, Wilbanks said.

Wilbanks said he's pleased with the overall findings.

"We didn't think there was anybody that was doing anything criminal or unethical, but in this day and age it's not what you believe, it's what you know," Wilbanks said. "We didn't want to get into doing our own investigation. We wanted to get somebody who had high credibility. If Joe Whitley would have found something criminal in there, he would have reported it."

McClure echoed the remark: "These people (who provided the report) are capable of following a trail if one exists. They found no trail to follow."

In April, the Gwinnett County Board of Education appointed Whitley to conduct the investigation, following a series of articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that questioned some of the school district's land purchases.

Wilbanks said the investigation cost the district "hundreds of thousands of dollars," but did not have an exact figure Thursday because "we haven't gotten all the bills."

Gwinnett County resident and community activist Marlyn Tillman said she does not believe the investigation was truly independent, since the school system paid for it. She thinks the investigation should have been conducted by a grand jury, which would have the power to subpoena witnesses.

"I will read this with a little bit of skepticism," she said. "I don't think you're going to tell your boss that (he) did things wrong when you want your paycheck."

The superintendent said the findings verify that school district officials consistently demonstrated sound financial stewardship in its land transactions.

"School sites were purchased at fairly assessed values at a time of tremendous volatility in the real estate market in Gwinnett County," Wilbanks said. "Between 2000 and 2008, the competitive market made the acquisition of land for schools more challenging, but the report notes that the school district was successful in purchasing the land it needed at costs that were competitive and consistent with land purchases by other school districts in metro Atlanta."

Wilbanks said the investigation substantiates that during the years when the district's need for schools was the greatest, its processes allowed the system to acquire the land it needed at fair market prices.

"(The findings mean) a lot to us, because it is important that the community continue to have trust and continue to see that we are good stewards of the taxpayer dollar," he said.

For a complete copy of the report, visit www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us.