A Jan. 27 grand jury indictment outlines eight charges of bribery against Doug Stacks, who no longer works for the city, as well as nine counts of bribery against former Lilburn DDA Chairman Norman Nash and four counts against David Kennedy.
These are the top stories from the past week.
Lilburn's former development director arrested on charges of taking bribes to influence projects
Lilburn City Manager Bill Johnsa said former assistant city manager Doug Stacks could have been in line to someday become the city’s top administrator.
Instead, Stacks resigned nearly a year and a half ago after allegedly admitting to Johnsa that he accepted bribes as part of a scandal that officials also claim the chairman of the city’s Downtown Development Authority board and a real estate broker were involved in.
“I fully trusted Doug,” Johnsa said. “I worked with Doug for 10 years. He was hired a few months before I came in 2008, and we had big plans for Doug. I mean Doug was very bright and actually, to be honest with you, we were working and transitioning him with the possibility of becoming the city manager upon my retirement.
“So, to say it’s a shock is — yeah, it’s very shocking.”
Stacks, who was Lilburn’s former planning and economic development director before he became assistant city manager in July 2019, was arrested over the weekend in relation to the bribery scandal.
The arrest followed a Jan. 27 grand jury indictment which outlines eight charges of bribery against Stacks, who no longer works for the city, as well as nine counts of bribery against former Lilburn DDA Chairman Norman Nash and four counts against David Kennedy.
Gwinnett jail records show Stacks was arrested on a bench warrant on Saturday, with bond set at $35,000. He was released the same day.
“We have been in contact with the Gwinnett District Attorney’s Office regarding the allegations and expected the recent indictment,” Stacks’ attorney, Matthew Crosby, said in a statement. “At this time, we are thoroughly investigating the claims and researching the legal issues involved. Any further comment on the pending litigation would be improper at this stage.”
Steve Reilly, one of the attorneys listed in court records for Nash, could not be reached for comment Monday. Contact information for Kennedy was not immediately available, and he had no attorney listed in court records.
The indictment lists several occasions between November 2014 and December 2018 where Stacks allegedly accepted bribes to influence rezoning actions, performance of property acquisition or sale and economic development strategies.
The scheme allegedly entailed more than $200,000 in bribes, based on figures listed in the indictment, although the court filing does leave the total amount open ended with some amounts listed as “more than” or “greater than” a benchmark amount.
“We’re handling it, but of course they still maintain presumption of innocence and they have a right to a jury trial by their peers,” District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson said.
Johnsa questioned Stacks about “possible illegal payments received as a result of city/Downtown Development Authority land transactions” on Aug. 22, 2019, according to a statement from the city.
The city manager said he had concerns prior to that after he heard a mention of a second amendment to a contract for property that was to be developed across the street from City Hall. Johnsa said he was interested in what was done with the property and asked Stacks to provide him with a copy of the amendment.
Johnsa said he had to ask Stacks a couple of times for the contract, and when he got a copy of it, noticed a company owned by Kennedy was involved. The city manager said Kennedy and Nash had an existing business relationship.
Johnsa also said he noticed Nash had already signed the amendment even though the DDA board had not yet voted on it, so the city manager said he asked Stacks about it.
“I could tell by the look on his face something wasn’t right so I kept on for a couple of days, pressing him on this transaction,” Johnsa said. “I finally just brought him in my office and said, ‘I’m going to ask you this question and you better answer truthfully. Do you know of Norman Nash illegally gaining financially from any transaction within the city?’
“He said, ‘Yes,’ which, you know, floored me. I said, ‘Well, the second question then, Doug, is that have you personally, as an employee of the city, gained financially from any transaction from the city or the DDA?’ And, he said, ‘Yes,’ that he had received a $10,000 cash payment from David Kennedy.”
Stacks resigned four days later on Aug. 26, after Johnsa questioned him again about it — this time with the city’s human resources director present. Johnsa had also already contacted both the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office and Lilburn Police Department, and an investigation into the issue underway by that point.
Then-Mayor Johnny Crist and the Lilburn City Council, as well as members of the Lilburn DDA had also already been made aware of the situation by that point, according to Johnsa.
“Once it was discovered, once I found out about it, we dealt with it immediately,” Johnsa said. “We don’t tolerate that here. That was dealt with swiftly.”
Nash was later removed from his position by the rest of the DDA board in February 2020, officially because he was unable to attend meetings because of medical issues.
“At the time, obviously I knew (about the bribery allegations) and the DDA members knew this, but ... this was not something the pubic was aware of since it was an ongoing investigation,” Johnsa said.
Johnsa also stressed “there was no direct embezzlement whatsoever, there’s money taken from the city financial accounts and/or the DDA financial accounts.” The city spent a longtime afterward looking into the matter to see if anyone else was involved, but Johnsa said he could not find any evidence that suggested other DDA board members or city employees were involved.
According to the indictment and Johnsa, Stacks allegedly accepted bribes for:
♦ Influencing the rezoning of a property at 190 Parkview Road and Arcado Road from commercial to residential ($8,833.33 bribe on Nov. 14, 2014 alleged). Nash allegedly gave Stacks a check for that amount on that day, according to the indictment.
♦ Influencing “performance of property acquisition, sale and/or economic development strategies” for a 9.74-acre property located at 4572 Lawrenceville Highway, where the new Lilburn Police Department facility was eventually built ($56,538.33 bribe on Sept. 25, 2015 alleged), Nash allegedly gave Stacks a check for “an amount greater than” $40,000 on that date, according to the indictment.
♦ Influencing “performance of property acquisition, sale and/or economic development strategies” for property located at 147 and 157 Main St., that was purchased by the DDA ($8,372.44 bribe on April 13, 2016 alleged, Nash also listed as a recipient)
♦ Influencing on zoning for the Enclave Townhomes project, which was a private project ($31,051.13 bribe on July 8, 2016 alleged). Nash accused of giving Stacks a check for that amount as well as a $8,372.44 check on that date, according to the indictment.
♦ Influencing “performance of property acquisition, sale and/or economic development strategies” for the Noble Village development, which was a DDA-driven project (More than $65,000 in bribes from Kennedy between July 1, 2017 and Dec. 25 2017 alleged, Nash also listed as a recipient)
♦ Influencing “performance in zoning activities” for the Luxomni Point development, which was a private project (No money amount listed, but bribe alleged to have been received on July 28, 2017)
♦ Influencing “performance of property acquisition, sale and/or economic development strategies” for the Indian Trail Distribution Center project, which was built on land the DDA sold for private development ($5,000 bribe from Kennedy alleged to have been received on June 19, 2018, Nash also listed as a recipient)
♦ Influencing zoning for the Preserve at Killian Hill development, which was a private project (No money amount listed, but bribe alleged to have been received on Dec. 5, 2018)
The indictment also states Kennedy allegedly gave Stacks and Nash checks “in amounts greater than $45,000” on Dec. 15, 2018 “with the purpose of influencing them in the performance of zoning activities, property acquisition and/or economic development strategies” for an unspecified project or projects.
Parents rally in support of GCPS superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, in-person learning
Parents who support both keeping J. Alvin Wilbanks as Gwinnett County Public Schools’ superintendent and keeping in-person learning available for families who want it gathered at the district’s offices on Tuesday to make their voices heard.
Nearly three dozen parents, who said they speak for a larger group of families who could not attend the mid-day rally, chanted “We support Wilbanks,” and expressed concerns that the school board could tip into micromanagement and put the district’s accreditation at risk.
“(School board chairman) Everton Blair is a product of this school system, and a damn fine one at that under the leadership of Mr. Wilbanks,” one Archer cluster parent, Holly Terei, said. “How in good faith can you be a product of such a fantastic educational institution, and then in the same breath call the person who rose that institution from the ground up a racist? Or that they get paid too much? Or they’ve been here too long?
“We’ve got to stop with this. We have got to stop. We need our board to come together (and) work fluidly as one. Our accreditation is coming up and our school system is at risk of losing their accreditation.”
Rumors and speculation have begun swirling among parents that the new Democratic Party majority on the school board — made up of Blair as well as new board members Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins — are planning to fire Wilbanks, who has just over a year and a half left on his contract rather than let his contract, with a salary of more than $600,000 a year, run out.
“Who will lead Gwinnett County (schools) if you remove Mr. Wilbanks?” one woman shouted during the rally.
Wilbanks recently told the Daily Post that he does not plan to resign — as some people have called on him to do in lieu of being fired — and said his future with the district will be up to board members. Wilbanks will be approaching or around 80 when his contract is set to expire in June 2022.
“I’ve never worried about my job,” the superintendent said. “I give 100% every day and I work at the pleasure of the board. If that’s not what they want, if they get three votes, they can change that.”
Wilbanks' contract is up for renewal on June 30, 2022, but the superintendent did not definitely say whether he will ask for it to be extended.
There are now competing petitions, one calling for Wilbanks’ removal and another urging him to stay through at least the end of his current contract, circulating in the community.
A video criticizing Wilbanks, and referring to him as J.A.W.s while accusing previous school board members of not holding him accountable, has also been circulating on the internet.
Supporters of Wilbanks did get encouragement from state Sen. Clint Dixon, who showed up during the rally and thanked the attendees for their support of the superintendent.
“I feel that Superintendent Wilbanks, he’s played a big part in making Gwinnett schools what they are today,” Dixon said. “I think it’s appalling that we’ve got some new board members that take it upon themselves to remove him for just radical reasons that have no basis.”
Lawrenceville tearing down former city fueling station to make way for gateway plaza project
Drivers passing through downtown Lawrenceville may have noticed something a little different as this week began: a former city vehicle fueling station located on a triangle shaped property by City Hall has started to disappear.
The awning where the station’s fuel pumps once stood came down over the weekend, reduced to a pile of twisted steel. Tanks at the site are expected to be removed at some point this week as well, and eventually, two buildings on the property will also be demolished.
The tear down is laying the groundwork for a gateway plaza and green space that will built on the property this spring and through the remainder of the year to welcome visitors traveling north on Grayson Highway into the downtown Lawrenceville area.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small project but ultimately it’s very important for the location,” Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington said. “(The property) kind of sets the tone as you head into downtown.”
The plaza and green space will end up tying into Lawrenceville’s bicentennial, which will be celebrated on Dec. 15, and end up serving as a sort of birthday gift for residents in a way.
Warbington said bicentennial plaques will be installed in the plaza, and one possible plan is to officially open it on the city’s actual 200th birthday at the end of the year.
“We hope it could be (a birthday present for the city),” he said. “That’s a great way to look at it.”
The rough illustration of what the finished plaza could look like shows crape myrtle, yoshino cherry, nuttal oak, saucer magnolia and little gem magnolia trees planted, along with “seasonal color” plants, at the site. There will be some small grassy areas as well.
The goal is to have the demolition of structures completed, and removal of concrete and asphalt finished soon so the greenery planted by sometime in April before the heat of summer sets in.
“(The trees and plants) are really just to soften up the urban area, like a pocket park, but obviously it won’t be an active park,” Warbington said.
There would also be a one-one way sign facing traffic heading north on Grayson Highway as it splits into Clayton and Perry Streets. A small round plaza will face City Hall. The plaza will have brick pavers, a granite rubble wall, a raised granite wall and a granite header curb.
Warbington said plaques will be placed in the plaza area.
“(The look of the plaques) hasn’t really been thought through or designed yet,” the city manager said.
GoFundMe campaign launched to cover funeral costs for mother, daughters killed in Snellville mobile home fire
A husband and father whose wife and three daughters died in a mobile home fire in Snellville over the weekend is asking for the community’s support to help pay for their funeral.
Alexander Diaz has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $100,000 to cover costs for a funeral for his wife, Isabella Martinez, and their daughters, Alexa, 6, Ashley, 4, and Daniela, 1.
As of Monday night, the campaign had raised $35,636 in its first two days.
“It so hard for me right now that all four of them went away in a blink of an eye,” Diaz wrote on the GoFundMe page. “God knows they never did harm to anyone, they were so young and barley growing and learning to live life, they were my pride and joy.”
Over the weekend, Gwinnett fire officials said crews were called to the fire on the 4200 block of Smokecreek Parkway in Snellville at 2:19 a.m. on Saturday on a report from a police officer.
Flames were coming through the roof by the time firefighters arrived. After crews were able to make it inside through a window, they found two of the daughters and handed them off to firefighters waiting outside the window to take them to safety.
As first responders attempted to provide care to them, however, it was determined they were unconscious and had succumbed to their injuries.
The mother and the third daughter were found deceased inside the trailer.
Fire officials have not yet announced a potential cause of the fire, but they said on Saturday that the majority of damage done by the fire was on the backside of the trailer as it moved toward the front.
The GoFundMe campaign can be viewed, and contributed to, by visiting gf.me/v/c/gfm/my-three-little-daughters-and-wifes-funeral.
Bill filed to name part of State Route 8 in memory of former Dacula Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks
Drivers who travel on State Route 8 in eastern Gwinnett may be seeing former Dacula Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks’ name every day in the future.
State Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, has filed legislation to rename a section of SR 8, from the Gwinnett-Barrow county line to Cedars Road, in memory of Wilbanks, who died two years ago while serving as Dacula’s leader.
“The State of Georgia continues to mourn the loss of one of its most distinguished citizens with the passing of Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks on (Jan. 3, 2019),” the resolution states.
If the General Assembly passes the resolution, it won’t be the first time the state’s legislators have recognized Wilbanks. They previously approved a move to name an intersection on Dacula Road, near Dacula City Hall, in his honor not long after he died in 2019 in a move led by Efstration and former state Sen. P.K. Martin.
Wilbanks served two stints as Dacula’s mayor. The first was in the 1970’s, and he then came back and was re-elected to the post in 2002, and ended up staying in the post for the remainder of his life.
Over the years, Wilbanks served as president of the Gwinnett Municipal Association and spent more than 20 years working with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency Disaster Relief. He was also an active member of Hebron Baptist Church.
The resolution has been assigned to the House Transportation Committee.
Driver charged with vehicular homicide, DUI for accident that killed two passengers on SR 316
The driver of a car that crashed on State Route 316 near Lawrenceville early Sunday morning, resulting in the death of two passengers, is facing vehicular homicide charges.
Christian Velasquez, 23, was driving a Chevrolet Malibu east on the highway when it ran off the road and hit an overhead sign post and a guardrail near Sugarloaf Parkway just before 6 a.m., Gwinnett police Cpl. Collin Flynn said.
The vehicle rolled after it hit the post and guardrail, causing two passengers to die at the scene.
“Investigators from the department’s Accident Investigation Unit also responded to the scene and took over the crash investigation,” Flynn said.
Velasquez, whose residency information is not listed in jail records, was taken to a local hospital. After he was released, however, he was arrested on the two counts of homicide by vehicle in the 1st degree, DUI, possession of methamphetamine, driving without a valid license and reckless driving.
The names of the victims have not yet been released by police.
Anyone who has information about the crash is asked to call detectives at 770-513-5300 or Crime Stoppers at 404-577-8477. They can also visit www.stopcrimeATL.com. There is a cash reward offered by Crime Stoppers for information that leads to an arrest and indictment.
Tipsters are asked to reference case No. 21-009899.
Gwinnett Stripers, Atlanta Braves extend affiliation agreement for 10 seasons
In an announcement made Friday by Major League Baseball, the Gwinnett Stripers have officially been confirmed to continue as the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves for the next 10 seasons.
The Stripers are one of 120 Minor League clubs that have agreed to accept MLB’s Professional Development League (PDL) license.
The agreement continues the longest-running affiliation in professional baseball into a 56th year in 2021, extending the franchise’s historic partnership with the Braves that began in 1966.
“We are proud to remain the top level of the Braves’ minor league system and continue a rich history with Atlanta that has been written over nearly six decades,” said Stripers vice president and general manager Adam English. “We look forward to working with Major League Baseball under the new agreement to innovate and grow the game of baseball. And of course, it’s an honor that for the next 10 years to come, Stripers fans will enjoy the best fan experience in Minor League Baseball while watching the future stars of the Braves play one step away from the majors at Coolray Field.”
MLB’s announcement also includes a new official league for the Stripers, who will be part of the Triple-A East. The 20-team circuit includes all 14 of the former members of the International League plus six others, split into three divisions. Gwinnett will be in the Southeast Division along with the Charlotte Knights (Chicago White Sox), Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay Rays), Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Miami Marlins), Memphis Redbirds (St. Louis Cardinals), Nashville Sounds (Milwaukee Brewers), and Norfolk Tides (Baltimore Orioles).
The Stripers’ 2021 schedule is expected to be released soon.
$1,000 bonus checks headed for most Georgia government employees
ATLANTA – Georgia officials unveiled plans Wednesday to give $1,000 bonuses to a large chunk of state government employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The one-time supplemental payments would go to around 57,000 state workers making salaries less than $80,000 annually, adding to $1,000 checks Gov. Brian Kemp has already pledged this year for K-12 public school teachers and staff.
Kemp joined Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and top General Assembly budget writers Wednesday to announce the one-time checks.
“We have worked long beside one another during this pandemic,” Kemp said at the state Capitol in Atlanta Wednesday. “And we will continue to do that.”
State officials gave few details Wednesday on how the bonus would be paid other than it would entail $59.6 million to be included in the state’s mid-year budget.
Georgia Senate lawmakers passed the $26.5 billion amended 2021 budget Tuesday, sending it back to the state House for final revisions where the $1,000 checks will be added, according to Ralston.
“We wanted to extend that $1,000 bonus beyond our teachers to many of our front-line state employees who have also served our citizens through the worst days of this pandemic,” Ralston said.
The bonus would benefit state public-health workers, state troopers, labor department employees, food inspectors, child-support caseworkers and staff from other state agencies.
It would not, however, go to employees under the state Board of Regents — which oversees Georgia’s public college and university system — as well as “some state authorities,” Ralston said. He did not elaborate on those authorities.
House and Senate lawmakers still have to finalize the mid-year budget before moving on to the fiscal 2022 budget that funds state agencies and public schools throughout the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Kemp has directed budget-writers to avoid any spending cuts similar to the $2.2 billion reductions imposed last year as the pandemic pummeled Georgia’s economy. State revenues have since rebounded for officials to craft upcoming agency budgets with a rosier outlook.
Peachtree Corners announces arrival of vehicle for mobility, autonomous technology testing at Curiosity Lab
Peachtree Corners officials recently announced the city is adding a vehicle for testing mobility and autonomous technologies at its Curiosity Lab living laboratory.
No, seriously, it’s literally a vehicle that can be used for those purposes.
The addition of the Ford Edge-based mobility research and test vehicle to Curiosity Lab’s offerings was announced Feb. 3. Officials said it has Level 3 autonomous capabilities and that companies and organizations doing work at the lab can use it to develop and prove whether their new advanced mobility and autonomous technologies work.
“There have been many mobility test vehicles introduced these past several years, but at Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, companies have the opportunity to develop new technologies on an open source mobility platform alongside other emerging solutions, while also leveraging actual smart infrastructure wholly owned by the city – not proprietary, closed platforms in closed track environments,” said Brandon Branham, chief technology officer and assistant city manager of Peachtree Corners.
“The Ford Edge-based test platform here operates in a living lab environment alongside residents that are walking and driving on the same public street. And we’re the first city in the world to insure a public roadway for both driven and driverless vehicle activity – giving companies a true advantage as they look to learn and improve their technologies before they ‘graduate’ and scale.”
The new vehicle will use an open-source platform which is different from other vehicles used for testing that only operate in closed courses or whose design limits them to only work on the proprietary platform offered by the host company.
The city is inviting companies that work on light detecting and ranging system, also known as LiDAR, cameras and computer vision, radar, V2X systems, data and simulation, mapping and full autonomous driving systems to come to Curiosity Lab to take advantage of the vehicle.
Peachtree Corners officials said the vehicle has a large rooftop rack that companies can use to attach their own sensors, such as LiDAR, to the vehicle for testing. The vehicle will interact with smart infrastructure owned by the city so that engineers can develop autonomous vehicle and mobility technologies with real world scenarios in mind. Such scenarios could include being around thousands of local commuters who live, work and drive in the area.
In addition to the city’s smart infrastructure data, engineers will also be able to access historical AV data from the vehicle’s dataset. Peachtree Corners officials said the city’s central control room will analyze the data from the city infrastructure as well as the sensors and devices on the vehicle. They will then make that data available to the engineers.
“We’re proud to have delivered multiple smart city firsts to date, and the introduction of an open-source platform for mobility research and testing is yet another milestone – giving companies the ability to develop new technologies in an actual city – complete with obstacles and everyday challenges that autonomous machines need to learn how to face,” Peachtree Corners City Manager Brian Johnson said.
“We’ve already had successful long-term tests of autonomous shuttles, Olli, transporting residents – and we are excited to have the opportunity to have a platform that will help move the world even closer to fulfilling the vision of fully autonomous vehicles operating safely in a city.”
Protections for human-trafficking victims pass Georgia Senate
The Georgia Senate passed two bills Thursday aimed at protecting victims of human trafficking, advancing a key plank of Gov. Brian Kemp’s legislative agenda.
One bill sponsored by state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, would allow human-trafficking victims to sue their traffickers in civil court for monetary damages.
The other bill, also sponsored by Dixon, would shield human-trafficking victims from public scrutiny if they seek to legally change their names by keeping name-change petitions under seal.
Dixon, a freshman who is one of the governor’s floor leaders in the Senate, said the governor-backed bills aim to protect some of the state’s most vulnerable community members.
“This is an issue that’s crucial to my county and yours ... and will help victims of human trafficking,” Dixon said.
Both bills passed unanimously and now head to the House for more voting. Kemp will likely sign them into law should they pass the General Assembly
The governor has made fighting human trafficking a priority since taking office in 2019, charging the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to crack down harder on traffickers through a multi-agency task force. He also tasked his wife, First Lady Marty Kemp, to lead the trafficking-focused GRACE Commission
Dixon’s bills follow legislation passed last year that toughened penalties for commercial drivers with human-trafficking criminal convictions and allowed victims to clear their court records of any offenses stemming from activities while they were being trafficked
Kemp’s agenda this year also includes legislation requiring anyone who seeks a new or renewed commercial driver’s license in Georgia to complete a human-trafficking awareness course.
State officials created a new hotline last September for Georgians to alert law enforcement officers of sexual or labor exploitation and to receive help for victims. Thousands of state government employees have also taken a trafficking-awareness course during the past year on how to spot abuse.
The number for the state’s human-trafficking hotline is 1-866-ENDHTGA.
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