Possible Bribery of Atlanta Official Seen in Special Master’s Ruling in Task Force Lawsuit
(APN) ATLANTA — A former Atlanta City Councilwoman who served as a Policy Advisor to then-Mayor Shirley Franklin may have accepted a bribe to help carry out a conspiracy by downtown business interests to attempt to sabotage the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, Special Master Frank Strickland ruled in an Order dated January 25, 2014, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.
Former Councilwoman Debi Starnes (District 2) served as a Policy Advisor to Mayor Franklin on homelessness issues beginning in 2007.
Mayor Franklin cut Starnes’s salary several times due to budget cuts; however, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID) funneled some 40,000 dollars through the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta to the City of Atlanta, to cover Starnes’s salary.
In return, evidence shows ADID, Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), and other conspirators expected Starnes to focus on their “issue” to destroy the largest homeless shelter in the U.S. Southeast.
The Special Master ruled that there was enough evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact for a jury to decide, on the issue of bribery.
As previously reported by APN, there is extensive evidence that over a period of several years, the Defendants engaged in a multi-pronged conspiracy to deprive the Task Force of public and private funds, and to force the Task Force into foreclosure, so that entities connected to Manny Fialkow could purchase the building for well-below market value [along with the added perceived benefit of removing homeless, Black men from downtown Peachtree Street].
This conspiracy included approaching private and public funding sources to discourage them from funding the Task Force; and approaching the Task Force’s private lenders to encourage them to sell the shelter’s mortgage notes to entities connected with the conspirators, only to then foreclose upon and attempt to evict the Task Force.
Starnes, in her role at the Mayor’s Office, was central to the conspirators’ plans.
“According to the Task Force, on or before August 19, 2008, Defendants (acting through ADID and CAP) agreed to pay $40,000 to Debi Starnes, the Atlanta Mayor’s Policy Advisor on Homelessness; the Task Force alleges that Defendants ‘funneled’ payment through United Way to Ms. Starnes’ private company, EMSTAR Research, Inc.,” the Order states.
Starnes’s company, EMSTAR, appears to have benefitted from the Task Force’s loss of funds, because EMSTAR provided consulting services for other non-profit organizations that benefited from the larger pool of funding that resulted from the cuts to the Task Force.
“The Task Force claims the payment to Ms. Starnes amounted to bribery, in that the purpose of this payment was to influence her in performing the functions of her office or employment with the City,” the Order states.
The “record shows that Ms. Starnes was employed by the City of Atlanta as an advisor to homelessness issues from February 2007 to January 2009. In July 2008, Ms. Starnes told Mr. Orr that funding for her City position was going to be eliminated,” the Order states.
“Two weeks later, CAP’s Executive Vice President Paul Kelman sent an email with the subject line ‘Response to Questions About Funding Debi Starnes Efforts;’ the text included the following:… ‘The Mayor has about 16 more months in office and we are not sure who will follow with any commitment on this issue. [The Downtown business community needs to make sure that this issue is kept front and center during the campaign leading up to the election.],” the Order states.
“Less than two weeks after Mr. Kelman’s email, ADID approved issuance of a $40,000 check to the United Way, accompanied by the notation ‘Debi Starnes Homeless Gift.’ After Ms. Starnes left her position with the City in January 2009, she took a position as a loaned executive to the City, a position funded by the United Way,” the Order states.
“Based on the evidence above the requisite dispute of fact remains as to whether Ms. Starnes was given a benefit to which she was not entitled in order to influence her official actions,” the Order states.
Anita Beaty, the Task Force’s Executive Director, says she believes Starnes should face a criminal investigation over the apparent bribery.
Activist Joe Beasley tells APN that he wants to review the matter, and may bring a copy of the Order to Paul Howard, the District Attorney for Fulton County.
On March 23, 2014, APN reported on the Special Master’s January 25 ruling in depth, focusing on the Task Force’s tort claims, which may result in a multi-million dollar verdict for the homeless shelter.
However, like so many chirping crickets, not a single corporate news organization in Atlanta–neither the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper nor Creative Loafing Atlanta magazine–has covered the ruling.
As a matter of historical reference, as reported by APN in 2010, documents show that Starnes and CAP relied on the AJC and Creative Loafing to carry out propaganda aspects of their campaign against the Task Force.
Due to the fact the bribery allegation was only one alleged predicate act under Georgia’s racketeering law–and at least two predicate acts are required for a RICO claim to go forward in the civil case–a jury is unlikely to hear the bribery claim, unless Fulton County Superior Judge Craig Schwall decides a jury should also hear the Task Force’s other allegation regarding wire fraud.
As previously reported by APN, the Special Master ruled that the wire fraud claim was not adequately asserted in the complaint. However, the Task Force believes the claim should go forward because they met the “notice pleading” requirements that apply to Georgia courts.
PREVIOUS ETHICS COMPLAINT AGAINST STARNES
In 2010, APN’s News Editor–the present writer–and Mr. Beasley co-filed an ethics complaint with the Ethics Office of the City of Atlanta, regarding Starnes’s apparent conflict of interest during her time as Policy Advisor.
Starnes had also failed to disclose the payment from United Way in city ethics disclosure filings.
The Ethics Office rejected the complaint because it concluded that Starnes was a loaned executive from the United Way, and not a City of Atlanta employee.
However, there is evidence that Starnes would fall under Georgia’s bribery law definition of “offeree with an official status.” For examples, Starnes was handing out business cards stating City of Atlanta on them; and Starnes described herself in depositions as being part of the Mayor’s cabinet.
According to Steve Hall, attorney for the Task Force, there is evidence that Starnes’s meetings with CAP and ADID increased after her salary began being funneled to Starnes through the United Way, through the City, from ADID.
TWO MORE RECENT RULINGS FAVOR THE TASK FORCE
The Court in recent weeks has issued at least two additional favorable rulings for the Task Force.
On March 24, 2014, Judge Schwall ruled that it would not hold co-conspirators Fialkow and Premium Funding Solutions in contempt of court for failing to pay certain court fees.
However, Schwall issued warnings to Fialkow and PFS.
“The Court finds that PFS’ arguments and defenses to the payment of invoices timely issued by the Special Master to be hollow, unfounded, and, frankly, disappointing. The Court expected better from this Defendant,” Schwall wrote.
“Given that Defendant paid the Special Master almost immediately after the hearing on February 21, 2014, and that PFS is current as of the date of this Order, the Court will refrain from holding PFS in contempt at this time,” Schwall wrote.
“All parties, however, are admonished to consider their arguments and actions (or inaction) at length, and act timely, should they have any concerns about invoices in the future. The Court will not condone such blatant disregard of its orders,” Schwall wrote.
Then, on yesterday, April 11, Strickland ruled against the motion of a non-party, Jennifer Walsey, to quash the Task Force’s subpoena for her to testify. Walsey is the wife of Dustin Walsey, who owns forty percent of PFS. Jennifer Walsey is also the sole owner and manager of JPT Win Enterprises LLC, which owns TMB Holdings Inc., which is managed by Dustin Walsey and Mr. Fialkow.
Mrs. Walsey will have to testify.