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Atlanta mayor caps rocky month by removing seven top officials

Some of those departing among Kasim Reed’s staunchest allies

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shook up her administration on Friday, announcing the departures of several holdovers from former Mayor Kasim Reed’s government, further separating herself from her predecessor.

Earlier this month, Bottoms demanded the resignations of 27 of her most senior staff – from Police Chief Erika Shields to Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell.

Bottoms accepted the resignations of former Communications Director Anne Torres and Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard almost immediately.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced late Friday that she would replace seven top city officials including City Attorney Jeremy Berry and Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Catherine Buell. This photo is from May 9. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

But more than two dozen other top city officials waited for word of their fates during a tumultuous three weeks at City Hall that included revelations about federal subpoenas for Reed’s credit card purchases; potentially illegal bonuses  that Reed approved days before he left office; and text messages  exchanged by Reed’s top communications officer that appear to violate state public record laws.

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On Friday, Bottoms announced five others would be moving out of City Hall, including City Attorney Jeremy Berry, Atlanta Housing Authority President and CEO Catherine Buell, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Amy Phuong and Chief Resilience Officer Stephanie Stuckey.

“I will continue to assess the breadth of skills, experiences and leadership traits needed to complete my leadership team, and will announce my nominations to fill these and other positions in the coming months,” Bottoms said in a statement. “I am excited about the successes that lie ahead, and appreciate the service of these individuals to the City.”

Staunchest of allies

Of all the departures, Berry, Beard, Buell and Torres were among the staunchest of Reed’s allies, known for faithfully executing his orders.

Reed appointed Berry, a former Dentons lawyer, to the city’s top legal position this past April. For the past several months Berry was responsible for overseeing outside counsel who were gathering information to respond to federal subpoenas in an ongoing bribery investigation.

In less than a year in his position, he had become ensnared in a Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry into violations of the state’s open records act.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in March found that in response to a public records request for legal bills in the bribery investigation, Berry produced compilations of invoices instead of the actual invoices without disclosing what he had done.

Experts told the AJC that the decision of Atlanta City Attorney Jeremy Berry to create documents resembling legal invoices rather than providing the AJC with copies of the actual invoices ranged from unethical to potentially criminal. WSB-TV (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Experts told the AJC the actions ranged from unethical to potentially criminal.

In a statement, Berry called the position “the dream job I never knew I wanted.” He said he was grateful for the opportunity to work on initiatives “that will leave a lasting legacy on the City.”

Among them: ending cash bail at the municipal court, the annexation of Emory University, the renovation of Phillips Arena, the sale of the Civic Center, and helping to end the long-running deed dispute between Atlanta Public Schools and the city.

‘We can hold whatever we want’

Torres joined Reed’s communications team in 2012, assumed the role of director in 2014. But Reed’s commitment to open government came into question over his final year in office as a federal corruption probe swirled around city.

Last month, the AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported on texts by Torres’ deputy, Jenna Garland, who coordinated the delayed release of records with a Watershed Department communications staffer in response to an open records request by the station.

On Thursday, the media outlets reported on similar texts by Torres, that show she tried to stop Atlanta Beltline CEO Brian McGowan from complying with an open records request and even instructed him to ignore the advice of the organization’s attorney.

Anne Torres, former communications director for ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. City of Atlanta (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“If she wants to work for the media, then she should leave her position,” Torres wrote in a Sept. 27 text about a request for McGowan’s employment contract. “We can hold whatever we want for as long as we want.”

McGowan and Beltline General Counsel Nina Hickson resisted Torres’ pressure and complied with state open records law.

In response to questions about the texts, Torres called them inter-employee banter.

Bottoms campaigned partly on transparency and open government and this month announced plans for a website that would allow the public to sift through all city expenditures.

‘Transition externally’

Buell was appointed Atlanta Housing Authority president and CEO in 2016 after a battle between Reed and the previous housing authority chief, Renee Glover.

Glover, who ran AHA for nearly two decades, decentralized low income housing in Atlanta, moving residents into mixed-income communities. Glover made Atlanta a model for national housing policy, but also earned criticism for gentrification and for giving staffers excessive salaries.

A City of Atlanta suit accusing former Atlanta Housing Authority head Renee Glover and Integral Development founder Egbert Perry of shady land dealings was dropped Thursday. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Reed and Buell, meanwhile, pursued litigation against Glover and prominent Atlanta developer Egbert Perry over land deals during Glover’s tenure. This week, the city dropped a lawsuit alleging Glover and Perry forged a backroom deal to build upscale homes on 80 acres of vacant land set aside for low-income residents.

Glover on Friday called the lawsuit “knowingly false and politically motivated.”

When Bottoms demanded resignations of her Cabinet members, Buell did not resign saying that the Housing Authority commissioners, not the mayor, appoint her. Nevertheless, Bottoms’ announcement on Friday said Buell would “transition externally.”

In a statement on Friday, Dr. Christopher Edwards, chairman of the Atlanta Housing Authority Commission, said that the panel had informed the mayor that Buell would be leaving her position.

South Africa trip

Bottoms accepted Beard’s resignation after the AJC and Channel 2 Action News published reports about a city donation of $40,000 to a dormant nonprofit created to raise money for affordable housing.

The source of the funds was represented as a raise Reed turned down and left with the city for charity. But the $40,000 donation came back to the city in a check dated March 5 for a different purpose: to cover some of the expenses of a controversial trip Reed and staff members took to South Africa in the spring of 2017.

Partners for Progress, a nonprofit formed by Invest Atlanta to help promote affordable housing, job creation and economic development, cut this $40,000 check to the city of Atlanta in March to defray the cost of business-class travel for former Mayor Kasim Reed and some of his entourage for a spring 2017 trip to South Africa. In December, the city had given the nonprofit $40,000 in taxpayer money from Reed’s unclaimed salary. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The maneuver seemed to be an attempt by Reed to fulfill a promise he made to have private donations reimburse taxpayers for some of the trip’s expenses. Beard sent an city invoice to the nonprofit from his private email address.

After news reports about he transaction, federal prosecutors issued a subpoena for records related to the deal.

When Bottoms accepted Beard’s resignation in a letter on April 11, Beard was attending a six-week executive training program at Harvard University.

The city paid $60,000 for the training  in July, after Reed approved it. But it won’t benefit taxpayers. According to Bottoms’ letter to Beard, his last day is May 18, the day after the program ends.

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