Kevin Kenerly and David Jenkins — the old friends and gambling buddies at the center of a lengthy investigation into questionable Gwinnett County land deals — lead very different lives these days.
Kenerly, the four-term Gwinnett County commissioner accused of taking bribes, entered a plea deal last week and will spend the next decade on probation. Once a prominent figure in the real estate world, the 51-year-old is a favorite punching bag, and venom-tongued punchline, for many — guilty in the court of public opinion, the tanned and well-groomed face of a corrupt era in Gwinnett politics.
He is bankrupt and no longer owns a nine-bedroom mansion in swanky Chateau Elan. His property in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is gone too. When he goes home, he goes to a rental house and hugs his wife, who has been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer and is dying.
Jenkins, on the other hand, lives in a $5-million, harbor-side home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The developer’s grand jury testimony — in which he refuted that a series of 20 $50,000 payments to Kenerly were connected to a land deal that ultimately netted him $8 million — granted him immunity from potential prosecution.
In the past three weeks, posts on the website for Jenkins’ company, Rocklyn Homes, have touted grand openings, “buyer bonuses” and fast-moving properties at developments in Lawrenceville, Buford and Snellville. Last September, the same company was awarded the controversial rezoning necessary to build a 334-home subdivision off Cruse Road in Lawrenceville.
Four days after Kenerly’s fate was sealed, the Atlanta Business Chronicle included Jenkins in its list of “Who’s Who In Residential Real Estate.”
These days, the primary thing that ties Kenerly and Jenkins together is the fact that they’re not going to prison — and the heartburn that Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter has over the decisions that allowed that to happen.
“I still am not sure,” Porter said of the deals given to both men. “But I made the decision and I’ll live with it I guess.”
‘It was a miracle’
The testimony is unsealed.
For the 10 months following Dec. 3, 2009, a special grand jury met every other Friday to investigate land acquisitions by the Gwinnett County government. Ten everyday women and 13 everyday men heard testimony from more than a dozen people, including county staffers, elected officials, attorneys, land owners and an investigator from the district attorney’s office.
They were provided documents enough to necessitate Porter establishing a secure website to hold it all.
At the end, the grand jury chose, among other things, to indict Kenerly on two counts of failure to disclose a financial interest and one count of bribery — the latter stemming from its belief that it was likely he accepted $1 million from Jenkins in exchange for his influence over the county’s purchase of land to expand Dacula’s Rabbit Hill Park.
Kenerly maintained his innocence and chose to fight. He was indicted twice before accepting last Tuesday the controversial “no contest” plea that gave him 10 years on probation but no prison time.
The closure of Kenerly’s case means the district attorney’s evidence can be released to the public, and that the once-secret testimony heard by the grand jury is no longer so. Both, specifically as they relate to Rabbit Hill Park, are summarized as follows.
Direct quotes are printed as they appear in grand jury transcripts, with parentheses denoting minor changes made for clarification.
— In 2005, Jenkins purchased just over 90 acres of land at the corner of Hurricane Shoals and Rabbit Hill roads, paying $7.98 million for the property. Rezoning on the property, which Jenkins wanted to use for both commercial and residential developments, was denied in August 2006.
Jenkins sued the county, a fairly standard procedure for developers who feel they are unjustly denied a zoning.
— Sometime in late February 2007, Jenkins testified, Kenerly approached him about selling the Rabbit Hill property to the county in order to settle the lawsuit. According to testimony, Kenerly pitched the idea of the Rabbit Hill property as a park for Mountain View High School, which had not yet been built.
Jenkins agreed to sell if he was offered a good price.
“It was a miracle,” Jenkins told the grand jury.
— Jenkins testified that, within a few days, Kenerly approached him again, asking for $1 million in connection with their Silver Oaks project.
“When — when he came in, he wanted to be — he asked me if I could pay him $50,000 a month for 20 months, like you said, a million dollars, just to — and get him out of the deal,” Jenkins told the grand jury. “You know, we had anticipated making, you know, 3- or $4 million in the development part of that deal. He said, I’ll take a million and get out, I’m tight on cash right now, if you could, pay me $50,000 a month. And we agreed to do — I agreed to do that.”
Including the Silver Oaks project, the duo was involved in at least five dealings in which they split profits 50-50 after Kenerly brought a property to Jenkins, who developed it. According to Porter, those deals netted Kenerly $4.8 million for being little more than a real estate broker.
In the case of the Silver Oaks, there was no written contract modifying the original agreement.
“You know, 99 times out of a hundred there would be,” Jenkins said. “We — I can’t find it. We just — we — we’ve moved our offices. Whatever reason, we can’t find it. So the answer to your question, no, there’s not a modification.”
— On March 6, 2007, Jenkins wrote his first $50,000 check to Kenerly.
— By the end of the month, Jenkins’ attorney set a letter to then-county attorney Van Stephens, offering to settle the lawsuit by selling the Rabbit Hill property to the county for $16.9 million. County staffer Ron Foster turned in his appraisal, valuing the property at $16.4 million, on April 30.
Kenerly reportedly lobbied for the property, despite it not being included on the initial list of properties to be considered for the Mountain View park — and despite its location more than five miles from where the new high school was eventually built.
— On May 22, 2007, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners voted to purchase Jenkins’ Rabbit Hill land for $16.26 million, a price negotiated after rock was found on part of the property.
Jenkins made more than $8 million profit on the sale.
— The $50,000 checks from Jenkins to Kenerly continued until Oct. 3, 2008, despite the Silver Oaks project failing and, according to bank records and testimony, Jenkins keeping his company afloat with personal funds.
“I mean you can see he started pumping money into the company in July/August/September of 2007,” Porter said in a transcribed discussion with a grand juror. “He was drawing off of operating funds prior to that, but then he started — you know, you can see a $700,000 personal loan. I mean our bank records are reflecting that. He started pumping money in — closed on the (Rabbit Hill) property in May of 2007, and by July or August, he’s — he’s putting money back into the companies.”
Replied the juror: “He’s rescued some way, somehow; otherwise, he’s done.”
Answered Porter: “Yeah. I mean if you think about it, if he didn’t get the — if he didn’t get the money, if he didn’t get the $8 million from the County, he wouldn’t have had the money to make the payments (to Kenerly) or any other payments, and — and that’s — he would have been in the tank.”
— In his testimony, Jenkins agreed that, if he had been granted his original zoning request by suing the county, he would “probably still be sitting with (unsold) houses at Rabbit Hill Road.”
“A lot of them,” he said.
— Kenerly evoked his right to the Fifth Amendment when summoned for questioning regarding the Rabbit Hill deal. Testimony during a second appearance in front of the grand jury covered mostly general procedures and perceptions surrounding county land acquisitions.
Following the hearing in which he entered his no contest plea, the former commissioner maintained his innocence.
“It’s been eight years of having to fight legal battles and fight legal battles and trying to tell people you’re innocent,” he said. “I’ve got to get back to making a living for my family.”
Attempts to contact Jenkins through various emails and phone numbers, as well as his attorney, were unsuccessful.
‘One bright spot’
The investigation into Kenerly and Jenkins produced a lot of evidence, and it all pointed in the direction of corruption — Jenkins even admitted in his testimony that it didn’t “look good.”
The case, though, was the definition of circumstantial. Jenkins was given immunity, in part, in exchange for his business records because there wasn’t enough evidence to secure a search warrant for them.
“Could I put David Jenkins putting cash in Kenerly’s pocket in return for a vote?” Porter said. “The answer to that was always no.”
Porter said he’s received his fair share of feedback — mostly negative — since last week’s plea deal with Kenerly.
Among those not sold on the decision is grand jury member Janice McCloskey. In emails with the Daily Post, McCloskey said she was “hugely disappointed” in the resolution of the case.
“I would have preferred to see Mr. Kenerly answer the charges before a jury and, if convicted, receive something more than a fine and non-reporting probation,” she said.
McCloskey also said some witnesses testifying in front of the grand jury displayed “contempt and irritation” for the process. She specifically called out the five then-sitting commissioners — Kenerly, Mike Beaudreau, Bert Nasuti, Shirley Lasseter and chairman Charles Bannister — for failing “to prepare for their appearance in any discernible manner.”
Her comments reflected the report previously issued by the grand jury as whole.
“It was disheartening, confounding and frustrating but profoundly eye-opening as to the way Gwinnett County was being run,” McCloskey said. “The degree of, or rather the lack of, accountability the commissioners demonstrated to their constituency was astounding.”
During the special grand jury process, Bannister resigned in lieu of indictment on a perjury charge.
Lasseter is currently serving a 33-month sentence in a Florida prison, the result of a federal investigation into her accepting bribes in exchange for her vote on zoning deals. That probe ran parallel to the grand jury’s efforts.
In July, Beaudreau lost a runoff that would have allowed him to vie for a state senate seat. Nasuti did not seek re-election after his second full term ended in December 2010.
“One bright spot for me, however,” McCloskey said, “is that today not one of those former commissioners … remains on the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners or holds any publicly elected office. It is my hope that they never will.”
Jenkins, meanwhile, continues to build homes for the people of Gwinnett County.