Former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton is facing three federal counts of extortion and bribery in relation to her involvement in the multimillion-dollar Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion in Decatur while she was a commissioner.
The May 15 indictment alleges that she sought monthly bribes of $500 to $1,000 from a subcontractor, working as part of Tetra Tech's team on its $10.2 million contract for the expansion project.
Barnes Sutton, who was DeKalb’s District 4 Commissioner from 2008 to 2016, denies the allegations that she demanded cash in exchange for contract rewards.
The FBI arrested Barnes Sutton, 59, at her Stone Mountain home early on May 21, when she was arraigned at the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. She pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond.
The indictment -- https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1164431/download?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery — details the criminal activity she allegedly engaged in during 2014 while she was on the DeKalb Board of Commissioners.
It states that she twice extorted $500 in cash in a plot to receive $1,000 a month, and that a senior DeKalb employee, referred to as “Public Official 1,” in his capacity first as the Board of Commissioners’ chief of staff and then as the deputy chief operating officer for Public Works and Infrastructure, knew about it at the time.
That person, Morris Williams, resigned from the county in March 2015. He is not named in the indictment.
Williams pleaded guilty in 2017 to an unrelated charge of obstruction of an officer in the wake of a 2015 interview with the FBI about a scheme to steal $4,000 from DeKalb’s government by forging former CEO Lee May’s name on a check.
In a May 21 press release, the Department of Justice said the FBI disrupted Barnes Sutton’s continued demands for cash in August 2014, and that she is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the FBI’s Atlanta Field Office and the DeKalb County Police Department.
Barnes Sutton was arraigned May 21 on two counts of extortion and one count of federal program bribery before U.S. Magistrate Judge Russell G. Vineyard.
She will be prosecuted by trial attorneys Amanda R. Vaughn and Victor R. Salgado of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section.
The indictment said Barnes Sutton “did knowingly obstruct, delay, and affect commerce and movement of articles and commodities in commerce, and did attempt to obstruct, delay, and affect commerce and the movement of articles and commodities in commerce by extortion” in obtaining cash from a contractor, “with the contractor’s consent induced by the wrongful use of fear of economic loss.”
The single bribery charge states that Barnes Sutton “while a member of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, and being an agent of DeKalb County, Georgia, did knowingly and corruptly solicit, demand, accept, and agree to accept anything of value intending to be influenced and rewarded in connection with any business, transaction, and series of transactions of DeKalb County involving something of value of $5,000 or more, namely Barnes Sutton solicited, demanded, accepted, and agreed to accept cash payments from Contractor A, intending to be influenced and rewarded as opportunities arose in connection with the Snapfinger Project and the award of future contracts to Contractor A and Company A.”
Barnes Sutton’s attorney Bret Williams told the AJC that Barnes Sutton had offered to turn herself in, and that it was unnecessary to arrest her at her home.
Williams said Barnes Sutton “has always stood ready and willing to face any allegations against her regarding her unblemished time.”
Earlier this year, Barnes Sutton received a subpoena for campaign and banking records dating back to 2012. She had also been the subject of several investigations, including one sparked by complaints in 2014 that she used her county purchasing card for personal expenses, and that she paid Warren Mosby, her then-boyfriend and campaign manager, $34,000 in public dollars, predominantly for political advice.
According to the indictment, between April and August 2013, Barnes Sutton, in her capacity as DeKalb County’s District 4 Commissioner, moved for and voted for the approval of Tetra Tech's four-year, $10.2 million contract as part of the expansion of the county’s Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant on Flakes Mill Road in Decatur.
She was chair of the county’s Finance, Audit and Budget Committee, which recommended the contract be awarded, as well as a member of the county’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee.
At a July 16, 2013, BOC meeting, Barnes Sutton made a motion to award the contract and was the presiding officer for the vote. The contract was signed on Aug. 7, 2013.
Tetra Tech, the lead contractor, is only referred to in the indictment as “Company B,” and was a construction management firm that in turn employed several subcontractors for the project, including an engineering consultancy firm referred to as “Company A.”
Company A, founded and operated by “Contractor A,” was contracted to receive $1.7 million, or 17 percent, of the $10.2 million contract awarded to Tetra Tech.
Contractor A was the person Barnes Sutton allegedly extorted a total of $1,000 in cash from on two occasions in 2014, in regards to the Snapfinger project.
In May 2014, Barnes Sutton approached Contractor A and asked why a company owned by a friend of hers was not a subcontractor for the project.
After Contractor A provided an explanation, Barnes Sutton wrote “500” on a piece of paper and provided it to Contractor A, who understood Barnes Sutton to be requesting payment of $500.
In June 2014, Barnes Sutton allegedly asked Public Official 1 to serve as the middleman for the payment.
Public Official 1 was the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners’ chief of staff until June 2014, when he became the deputy chief operating officer for Public Works and Infrastructure.
The indictment includes transcriptions of two recorded conversations between Public Official 1 and Barnes Sutton in relation to cash payments from Contractor A.
“He’s supposed to give you $500 and I’m not in that,” Public Official 1 said. “That’s up to you and him…there’s no reason for me to be in it…he already told me he don’t want to do it with me because his contracts come through me, he’s trying to keep that stuff as square as he can.”
“Then how do I get it?” Barnes Sutton said. “I don’t want [Contractor A] coming to me…he’s your friend…I trust you…I just don’t want any problems.”
“That’s up to you and him…if you don’t want any problems don’t cause none, that’s the key…people stay in their lane and everybody’ll be okay,” Public Official 1 replied.
Barnes Sutton met Contractor A on June 6, 2014 at a Decatur restaurant. She brought her son along, without telling him why, so the $500 cash could be handed to him, rather than to her.
This exchange allegedly unsettled Contractor A, as explained to Barnes Sutton by Public Official 1 during a meeting at her house on July 10, 2014.
“So [Contractor A] was, is, uncomfortable with that set up,” the official said. “He kinda trippin’ because he don’t know, you know, what’s it for, what’s the money for…he’s all flustered right now…I told him y’all were doing good on the contract.”
Barnes Sutton explained she used her son because she did not want to be seen accepting envelopes in public.
“I just don’t wanna be sitting in no restaurant and somebody gave me an envelope…you know, that’s all that was.”
She told Public Official 1 she wanted $1,000 a month, instead of $500, “cuz I really need my job back, I can’t make it like this.”
Contractor A later refused the higher amount, but met Barnes Sutton at her home on July 28 and paid her another $500 cash.
Tetra Tech’s subcontract was part of the $187 million Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion underway since 2007 at 4124 Flakes Mill Road. The plant’s expansion is part of DeKalb’s $1.34 billion Capital Improvement Program to repair the county’s aging water and sewer system.