DeKalb County, GA: Walker has campaign ties to Mel Sembler execs, employees

Rebecca Chase Williams
For The Crier
May 19, 2009

As the DeKalb Development Authority considers whether to give Town Brookhaven a 20-year tax break, the authority chairman, Dr, Eugene Walker, who also sits the county board of education, will be voting on whether to award a $51 million tax break to his single largest group of campaign contributors.

In campaign disclosure reports for Walker’s race for the vacant school board seat in November, members of the board of the Sembler Company and Sembler employees and wives contributed $18,000 to Walker’s campaign. That is one third of the total contributions received by Walker for his successful bid, and by far the largest group of related contributors. Walker was already a member of the Development Authority at the time of his school board election.

Walker was appointed to the authority by DeKalb’s former chief executive, Vernon Jones. When Jones ran last year for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, Sembler-related contributions were his largest group of primary election donors.

Walker said he had no plans to excuse himself from the upcoming authority vote and saw no conflict of interest in having accepted contributions from Sembler principals.

“It appears I ran on a platform of economic development and I guess people liked my positions and supported my candidacy,” he said. “Every vote is transparent and above board. I hope they (Sembler) don’t feel if they contributed that they bought my vote.”

The Sembler Company spokesman, Angelo Fuster, said there was no effort to influence the upcoming vote.

“We don’t see any conflict in contributing to good people, “ said Fuster. “ It’s an easy and cheap shot to imply that we are seeking some special advantage.”

Fuster points out that the Development Authority had already approved a 10-year tax abatement for Sembler’s Town Brookhaven development last fall before the school board election. Fuster added that the Sembler Company also contributed to the campaigns of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, Jones’ Senate bid, as well as a number of other county commission races.

“We would take offense that we are selling anything by making contributions for anything other than good government,” said Fuster.

Brookhaven resident Bill Draper wondered why executives like Mel Sembler, located in Florida, would contribute to a local school board race.

Mel Sembler’s concern for the school children in DeKalb County is touching,” said Draper with a note of sarcasm. “Sembler was contributing to the school board campaign of the Development Authority’s chairman at the same time the authority is granting his DeKalb County project a 10-year abatement of DeKalb school board taxes. And five months later he wants to abate twice as much. Really touching.”

State Rep. Mike Jacob (R-North DeKalb) who represents the district that includes Town Brookhaven, said Sembler was looking for something in return for its contributions.

“I suppose Sembler has decided that getting a $50 million tax abatement in exchange for $18,000 in campaign contribution is a good return on investment,” he said. “But it’s a terrible deal for taxpayers.”

Jacobs said that even if Walker has not committed a technical violation of state law, “what he is doing is terribly unethical.”

Jacobs said he was more determined than ever to push legislation to require tax abatements, what some call “phantom bond issues” to be approved by both the county board of commissioners and the board of education. He also believes the law should be changed to prohibit someone from serving on the school board and the development authority at the same time, since the development authority, by granting tax abatements, is in effect taking away future revenue to schools.