Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration transferred two employees from City Hall to high-paying positions at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in the final days of Reed’s term.
Both worked closely with Reed, one as an executive assistant to the mayor and the other as a scheduling coordinator, and both were promoted to the positions at the airport as the mayor left office, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found.
The moves from Reed’s office to the airport have prompted questions about the job transfers and the effect on morale among airport employees, many whom are paid far less.
“We’ve seen once again former Mayor Reed, political strong-arm, trying to protect people and make sure they are safe after he leaves City Hall…. and again on the taxpayer dime,” said Common Cause Georgia executive director Sara Henderson. “You essentially have created these positions for people so they can continue to draw a salary, even when you leave.”
The transfers have drawn attention amid a federal bribery investigation into City Hall that has reached into the airport.
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Cheryl Pe Chua, a scheduler in Reed’s office, was promoted to a position of airport director for premium services at a salary of $105,000 a year. She will manage a new Hartsfield-Jackson program for VIP travelers, with a number of such people expected for events like the Super Bowl next year.
Chua has a background in hospitality, coming to the City of Atlanta in late 2014 from a position as executive assistant to the general manager at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.
She was hired by the city at a salary of $57,500, was given a raise to more than $68,000 a year in 2015, then another raise to more than $70,000 in 2017. Then, she got a 49 percent raise, making $35,000 a year more at the airport.
Lillie Cunningham, an executive assistant to the mayor, is now a project manager in the airport general manager’s office handling executive scheduling and payroll — and making $93,833 a year.
Cunningham originally joined the mayor’s office in 2010 at a salary of about $80,000 a year. She got several raises over the years to reach the $93,833 level in 2017. She was previously a legal secretary and executive assistant at law firm Holland & Knight, where Reed was a partner before he was elected mayor in 2009.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in a statement through his spokesman: “The City of Atlanta employs more than 8,000 individuals. Transfers and promotions are not uncommon and take place regularly in every City Department. It’s unfortunate that the AJC continues to attack and target talented public servants who served under the Reed Administration.”
Reed also said: “Both Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Chua have extensive experience in operations management and are more than qualified for the positions they currently hold at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.”
Both got their job offers from Reed’s human resources commissioner Yvonne Cowser Yancy via e-mail on the same day, Dec. 21, 2017 — 12 days before Reed left office.
This is “something that we see mayors do pretty often at the end of their tenure, is transfer people out to the airport,” Henderson said. “Employees are usually safe out at the airport because there’s very little oversight that comes from the city of Atlanta…. That’s really what this is, is protecting people who he probably felt like were loyal to him.”
Chua and Cunningham were both hired into temporary positions at the airport. But a city spokesman said in a statement: “We are confident they will be moved to regular benefit earning positions” in the next year.
When asked if the two positions were open to others to apply, the city spokesman responded: “Temporary (extra help) positions are traditionally not posted or advertised.”
But that’s not always the case. The city’s job openings website on Thursday listed at least one “extra help” position: A job posting for a data/reporting Analyst to handle open records request records at the police department paying $38,300.
Henderson, who worked at the airport in 2014-2015 in government affairs, said Cunningham and Chua’s salaries are also “well above and beyond even what some of the managers at the airport make.”
“These political appointees…to be given really these enormous salaries as people who have been there for many, many years [go] without raises…. It really breeds discontent among the airport employees,” she said.
Kennesaw State University politics professor Kerwin Swint said with Hartsfield-Jackson’s “tortured past when it comes to personnel, contracting, lawsuits, that kind of thing definitely raises a lot of questions.”
But Gina Pagnotta, president of the Professional Association of City Employees in Atlanta, told Channel 2 Action News: “Whether it was wrong, right, indifferent or not, I can say at least [Reed] looked out for his employees.”
Cunningham and Chua also each got $5,000 bonuses from Reed before he left office in January 2018.
Chua also won a $1,000 reward in 2016 for winning a DragonCon costume contest. The prize cost the city $1,480.37 because the city also paid income taxes on the reward.
“Please do not fear, City of Atlanta is responsible for paying the taxes on your behalf,” a city payroll manager wrote in a memo.