Former Gwinnett County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly leaves the courtroom Tuesday after entering a plea of no contest to one count of bribery. (Pool Photo)
LAWRENCEVILLE — The plea entered Tuesday by Kevin Kenerly brought closure — the official end to an in-depth investigation of corruption within the Gwinnett County government.
It did not, however, send the former county commissioner to prison.
Kenerly pleaded no contest to a single count of bribery Tuesday, nearly four years after his original arrest and resignation in light of allegations involving shady land deals. In a compromise reached with Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, the four-term county commissioner will pay a $10,000 fine and spend the next decade on probation.
He will not be incarcerated.
“I think we resolved the case and took an albatross from around the neck of the county,” Porter said. “There are going to be people who disagree with it, but given the condition of (Kenerly’s) wife and given the condition of the case, and everything else I had to take into account — what is it? ‘The definition of a compromise is nobody’s happy’? That may be where we are.”
Kenerly’s wife, Beth, found out in recent months that she has Stage IV breast cancer with “multiple complications.” Her condition — and the fact the couple still has one child in middle school, two in high school and another in college — was a major factor in the prison-less sentence, Porter said.
Even after Tuesday’s plea, Kenerly and attorney Pat McDonough continued to maintain the ex-commissioner’s innocence, saying he had merely grown weary of fighting the charges.
The no contest plea does not entail an admission of guilt.
“As much as I want to fight and as much fight as I have in me, I’ve got to take that fight and put it toward my family instead of wanting to fight this thing,” Kenerly, now 51, said. “Even though I want to fight it to my grave.”
Kenerly was arrested in October 2010 following a year-long investigation into questionable county land purchases. The Braselton resident is accused of accepting a $1 million bribe in order to get developer David Jenkins a favorable deal in his sale of park land to the county.
Jenkins ultimately sold the land that became Dacula’s Rabbit Hill Park for more than twice the $8 million he originally paid for it.
The original indictment against Kenerly was thrown out after the state Court of Appeals ruled that the special grand jury empaneled by Porter did not have the power to investigate criminal behavior. A second indictment was returned in 2011 and, despite the best efforts of Kenerly’s attorneys, was upheld last November by the Court of Appeals.
The Georgia Supreme Court had not yet issued an opinion on the second indictment when Tuesday’s deal was struck.
Porter said the case, based on at least six boxes of evidence and testimony accumulated largely by a grand jury, was triable but circumstantial. Jenkins, the state’s primary witness, was given immunity in exchange for his business records and his testimony. Despite that, Porter said he expected that Jenkins would have done “everything he could to save Kenerly.”
McDonough, Kenerly’s attorney, echoed Jenkins’ reported grand jury testimony that his 20 payments to Kenerly were in connection with an entirely different business deal.
“If we went to trial we are confident that we would have been victorious,” McDonough said.
His sentencing Tuesday closed the book on a tumultuous time that rocked Gwinnett County and its government.
On June 28, 2010, then-Commission Chairman Charles Bannister was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. That charge would later be dropped, but Bannister retired four months later — to avoid being prosecuted on perjury charges levied by a special grand jury investigating suspicious county land deals.
On May 31, 2012, then-Commissioner Shirley Lasseter abruptly resigned and pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. She admitted to accepting $36,500 for her vote on a proposed Duluth pawn shop, receiving another bribe in connection with a waste management project and telling undercover authorities that her influence on the proposed privatization of the Briscoe Field Airport was for sale.
Lasseter began serving a 33-month prison sentence in December of that year. Her son, John Fanning, and a business associate named Skip Cain were accused of pimping her vote, and developer Mark Gary was also tied to the case. All three received significant prison time.
Kenerly, a once-wealthy developer, has filed bankruptcy since his arrest and moved his family out of Chateau Elan and into a rental home. He said he was looking forward to “getting back to making a living for my family.”
“I’m satisfied that we were able to conduct a thorough investigation, that we were able to uncover wrongdoing and that we were able to resolve those cases,” Porter said. “Yes, there are certain things that I would’ve done differently, or certain things that I wish had different outcomes. But when you investigate them you never try to predict where you’re going to end up. You always just try to follow evidence.”
The evidence appears to have run its course.
“I can’t speak for other agencies,” Porter said, “but as far as I know this is the end of it.”
Kevin Kenerly enters a plea
Former Gwinnett County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly pleaded no contest Tuesday to a bribery charge. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and no prison time.