The City of Atlanta's ethics officer is taking the highly unusual step of requesting that her board issue a subpoena for city records, specifically the emails of former Mayor Kasim Reed's Chief of Staff Candace Byrd.
The ethics office is seeking the emails as part of an investigation into the abuse of city-issued credit cards.
This formal call for those records shows that the independent agency charged with policing the ethics of 8,000 city employees may have serious doubts about whether Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration will provide the documents without legal action.
Under the city code and charter, the ethics officer and auditor should have unrestricted access to city records, said City Council President Felicia Moore. The request for the subpoena, Moore said, is a signal that the administration and the ethics office are disagreeing about the level of access.
“If they are feeling that they [the ethics office] are having to take this extraordinary step, then clearly they have had some issues in receiving the information that they want,” Moore said.
The ethics board will consider the subpoena request at its Thursday meeting, according to an agenda posted online.
Jabu Sengova, the city’s ethics officer, said she was requesting the subpoena to ensure the thoroughness of the investigation.
“In an abundance of caution, we are requesting this subpoena so we can have it, if for any reason, we get any push back on the emails,” Sengova said.
She declined to say if the administration has signaled a reluctance to turn over the documents.
A Bottoms’ spokesman did not answer a question about whether the city had failed to turn over records to the ethics office.
“We are unfamiliar with the subpoena request and have no information about why a subpoena is being sought,” said Michael Smith, Bottom’s press secretary.
An AJC review of the board’s agendas and minutes showed that the board had not subpoenaed other city records in at least 10 years.
The board on Thursday will also consider moving forward with an ethics complaint against Reed’s former Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard who may have violated city code by misusing his city issued credit card.
The potential misuse of city credit cards is part of a sprawling federal investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall that has resulted in five guilty pleas and two indictments.
The ethics complaint against Beard came after stories published by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News last year, including one about a $10,000 hotel bill charged to the former CFO's city-issued credit card that was repaid shortly after the newspaper requested his credit card statements.
In all, the city’s ethics officer questioned 44 separate charges to Beard’s credit card, amounting to nearly $150,000.
Some of those travel charges covered by city taxpayers were made in Beard’s paid capacity as a member of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. The ethics complaint against him notes that he “failed to provide any or significant supporting documentation demonstrating the city business justification” for the charges.
According to recent correspondence between the U.S. Attorneys Office and the city, prosecutors have asked for the complaint, along with Beard’s calendar.
Beard told the AJC on Monday that he had “no clue” about the board’s meeting. He declined to comment on if he had provided a written response to the charges as was requested in the complaint.
Other questionable charges mentioned in the complaint include a $17,000 trip to Barcelona and a $1,200 restaurant tab in Spain; a $13,000 flight to China for Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy; $8,000 in hotel and ground transportation in France for former Mayor Kasim Reed's long-time assistant Lilly Cunningham and Reed's former scheduler Cheryl Pe Chua; and a $1,500 donation to Atlanta Jazz Festival.
Byrd’s credit card statements, which the AJC obtained last year, also showed extravagant purchases. From 2015 to 2017, she charged more than $360,000, including more than $102,000 on 10 international airplane tickets; $2,000 hotel stays in Singapore, Nassau and New Delhi; a $5,400 hotel bill form the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta; and $2,000 in chauffeured car service in Atlanta.