A Gwinnett County grand jury on Wednesday indicted the county’s longest-serving commissioner, Kevin Kenerly, on charges of bribery and failure to disclose a financial interest in two properties the county rezoned.
If convicted of all counts, Kenerly faces up to 22 years in prison.
The indictment says that Kenerly “directly or indirectly” accepted or agreed to accept 20 payments of $50,000 — totaling $1 million — as bribes for arranging for the county commission to buy a piece of unnamed real estate. The deal benefited developer David Jenkins and settled a lawsuit, although specifics about the purchase were not mentioned in the indictment.
Kenerly also was indicted on two misdemeanor charges for failure to disclose a partnership with D.G. Jenkins Development Corporation, which successfully sought county rezoning on two properties.
“I am going to plead not guilty and I am confident when the jury hears the facts, I will be cleared,” Kenerly told the AJC in a statement after the hearing.
County records show the first rezoning, from 2001, is a 24-acre property on Old Snellville Highway where the developer wanted to build apartments. The second rezoning, approved in 2005, was for a 4-acre property on Beaver Ruin Road, where D.G. Jenkins Development Corp. requested to build a 27,650-square-foot commercial and retail development.
Superior Court Judge Michael Clark unsealed the indictment at a court hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Kenerly and his attorney, Walt Britt, attended the hearing. Britt had told the judge during the hearing that Kenerly received a notice of the special purpose grand jury’s intent to indict him on Sept. 22.
Jenkins did not respond to a message seeking comment left at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home on Wednesday afternoon.
District Attorney Danny Porter said the next step is for a judge to sign a bench warrant for Kenerly’s arrest. Porter had not prepared the warrant in time for Judge Dawson Jackson to sign it before courthouse offices closed at 5 p.m.
Kenerly, who was elected in 1994 and is not seeking re-election in November, is expected to make arrangements to turn himself in at the Gwinnett County Detention Center and post bond on the charges, Porter said.
The offense of bribery is a felony punishable by one to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. The other two offenses are for misdemeanor disclosure of a financial interest. Each misdemeanor offense is punishable by up to a year in prison and up to $1,000 fines.
Kenerly’s indictment is the latest twist in an investigation that already has contributed to the resignation of commission Chairman Charles Bannister.
The grand jury began its probe in January after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on several county parkland purchases based on questionable appraisals. The newspaper reported that taxpayers might have paid millions of dollars more than the properties were worth.
In each case, commissioners backing the land deals had ties to developers or others involved. Kenerly championed two of the five land deals featured in AJC articles. Bannister advocated for another.
Both men appeared before the grand jury on Oct. 8. Bannister resigned a short while later, citing the toll of a difficult year on his family and his health.
A few days later, the grand jury released documents showing that it considered – and rejected – a perjury charge against Bannister. The rejected charge claimed Bannister gave false testimony before the jury about a meeting and an appraisal involving one of the land deals.
On Wednesday Judge Clark ordered the indictment against Kenerly be unsealed after Britt argued unsuccessfully that the grand jury did not have the power to indict the commissioner.
At the hearing, Britt said Kenerly had been called to testify before the grand jury about the county’s purchase of land for Rabbit Hill Park from David Jenkins or any corporation for which Jenkins was a member.
Gwinnett County commissioners in 2007 voted to buy 90 acres off Rabbit Hill Road to be used for a park with athletic fields. Kenerly pushed for the deal at a purchase price of $16.26 million. Property records show that two years before, the developer, David Jenkins, had bought the land for $8.9 million. Kenerly has acknowledged that he is a friend of Jenkins. The two men also have been involved in three business deals and have gone on several group vacations to Las Vegas together.
AJC staff writer Tim Eberly contributed to this article.
The story so far
Last year, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter asked for a special-purpose grand jury to be impaneled after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of stories detailing five questionable purchases of parkland and one purchase that was scuttled. The stories exposed cozy relationships between developers and commissioners and uncovered inflated appraisals that the purchases were based on.
Gwinnett County taxpayers may have overpaid millions of dollars for land that has yet to be developed into parks. Commissioner Kevin Kenerly championed two of the deals, and Commission Chairman Charles Bannister, and Commissioners Lorraine Green and Shirley Lasseter each advocated for one. In each case, the individual commissioners acknowledged connections to the developers or others involved in the deal.
The properties were:
Beaver Ruin Road and I-85 near Norcross, 36.79 acres at a purchase price of $4.65 million.
Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Sugar Hill, 66.6 acres at a purchase price of $13.95 million.
Rabbit Hill Road and Hurricane Shoals Road in Dacula, 90.56 acres at a price ofpurchased for $16.26 million.
Givens Road between Dacula and Grayson, 33.19 acres at a purchase price of $2.29 million.
Lakes Parkway in Lawrenceville, 13.37 acres at a purchase price of $1.16 million.
In one of the more controversial purchases, commissioners in 2007 voted to buy the land off Rabbit Hill Road to be used for a park with athletic fields. Kenerly pushed for the deal at a purchase price of $16.26 million. Property records show that two years before, the developer, David Jenkins, had bought the land for $8.9 million. Kenerly has acknowledged that he is a friend of Jenkins’. The two men also have been involved in three business deals and have gone together on several group vacations to Las Vegas together.
A special-purpose grand jury has only been convened in Gwinnett County twice before, both times in 1989.
How we got the story
Officials began investigating the land deals in Gwinnett following a series of stories published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution beginning in August 2009.
Working off a tip, the AJC investigated eight land purchases for parkland by Gwinnett County, eventually focusing on six of them, including one aborted deal.
The newspaper researched the history of the properties, the attempts by developers to rezone and develop the land, several related lawsuits and the county’s steps to buy the land.
In doing so, the AJC reviewed dozens of files in five county departments, including those that buy parkland and run the county’s parks system.
It also interviewed six current or former commissioners, reviewed all their campaign contributions over the past six years, reviewed two master plans for the parks system and watched numerous archived Board of Commissioners’ meetings dating back to 2004.
The AJC also solicited the help of two local appraisers to examine the appraisals involved in the deals.