|By David Wickert, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 20, 2012--A Gwinnett County commissioner's financial interests and another commissioner's bribery conviction could jeopardize a proposed $57 million hotel on public land in Duluth.
Commissioner John Heard is a consultant for a company that wants to build an upscale hotel at Gwinnett Center in Duluth. Heard will abstain from voting on the issue. And though he works for the developer, Heard said he did not work on the Gwinnett Center project.
But some Gwinnett residents say his ties to the company, while disclosed under county ethics rules, look suspicious. In light of former Commissioner Shirley Lasseter's recent resignation and guilty plea on a bribery charge, elected officials' relationships with companies doing business with the county is drawing more scrutiny. Consequently, some residents want commissioners to reject the hotel proposal and rebid the project.
"If they allow this to go through under the circumstances, that will completely damage their credibility," said Debbie Dooley of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots.
With Heard abstaining, it's unclear whether the project will pass. Under county rules, it needs the votes of all three remaining commissioners. Three votes is a majority on the five-member commission.
"I just frankly shake my head that we're even having this discussion," said Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, expressing frustration that Heard sought employment with the company while Gwinnett was soliciting bids for the hotel project.
The hotel deal is the latest Gwinnett venture to draw public scrutiny in recent years. A publicly financed baseball stadium that cost more than expected, a controversial garbage collection plan and a series of parkland purchases all have generated public ire.
The land deals sparked a grand jury investigation that in 2010 led to a still-pending bribery charge against then-Commissioner Kevin Kenerly and to the resignation of then-Chairman Charles Bannister.
Under commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash's leadership, commissioners appeared to make progress on restoring public trust, approving new ethics and land-buying rules last year. But Lasseter's May 31 guilty plea has renewed questions of whether Gwinnett County government is for sale.
Lasseter admitted she accepted $36,500 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent posing as a businessman seeking her vote for a real estate project. Her son, John Fanning, and Hall County businessman Carl "Skip" Cain also pleaded guilty to bribery and to drug charges.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office have said their corruption investigation continues.
Now the probe and its fallout is casting a shadow on the long-planned on-site hotel at Gwinnett Center, home to a convention center, arena and other public facilities. The Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, which runs the facility, says an on-site hotel will allow it to compete for bigger events that generate more revenue.
Though Norcross-based Nilhan would pay for the hotel and has not asked Gwinnett for money, it would benefit from leasing about 2 acres at Gwinnett Center for $1 a year.
Nilhan was planning to build a hotel across the street when the convention bureau solicited bids. Convention officials say the hotel will benefit Gwinnett Center more if it's on-site.
Proponents have portrayed the 300-room hotel as a no-risk venture for the county. Sachs says the hotel would create hundreds of construction, hotel and other jobs and generate $76 million in local tax revenue over 30 years.
"If there was ever a no-brainer, this is it," convention bureau CEO Preston Williams told commissioners.
But Heard's involvement with Nilhan has come under scrutiny.
Heard, elected in 2010, is an architect specializing in hotels. He became a consultant for DCT Group -- a Nilhan affiliate -- in January, as the convention bureau was seeking bids for the hotel project. Heard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he works 50 to 60 hours a week on seven or eight DCT Group projects across the Southeast.
Heard declined to say how much he earns from the company. He told the Gwinnett Daily Post earlier this year he makes more than $100,000.
In February, Heard resigned from the convention bureau board, disclosed his conflict of interest and vowed not to vote on the hotel project. He said he has not discussed the project with anyone since disclosing his relationship with Nilhan.
Dooley said Heard's actions aren't enough. She said commissioners should reject the proposal and rebid the project. She said voters won't believe Heard's involvement is a coincidence.
"I don't know that he is [influencing the vote]," said Steve Ramey of the Founding Fathers Tea Party Patriots. "But sometimes, if it quacks like a duck, you never know."
Commissioners were noncommittal about the hotel project Tuesday. But it's clear Heard's financial ties and Lasseter's resignation have put them in a tough spot.
"If I was sensitive [to public perceptions] before a few weeks ago, I'm super-sensitive now," Nash said.
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