Atlanta councilman’s former mayoral campaign facing debt

Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown speaks during a press conference outside of Atlanta City Hall in Atlanta, Friday, May 14, 2021. During the presser, Brown announced that he was running for mayor of Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown speaks during a press conference outside of Atlanta City Hall in Atlanta, Friday, May 14, 2021. During the presser, Brown announced that he was running for mayor of Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

After two years on the Atlanta City Council, Antonio Brown set his sights on the mayor’s office, running a progressive campaign funded by grassroots dollars and founded on the idea of “reimagining Atlanta” by ending generational poverty.

As the councilman now prepares to leave City Hall and faces a federal fraud trial next year, his mayoral campaign is working to retire debt remaining after the election — a fate that losing campaigns sometimes meet.

Two of Brown’s former campaign staffers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they are still waiting for thousands of dollars in payments for work done months ago. They said they stopped working for the campaign in September after their salaries were not paid.

The AJC reviewed invoices, emails and text messages between Brown and the staff members, in which Brown said the campaign is trying to raise the necessary funds to pay them.

“We used the last bit of our fundraising for the TV ads we ran in hopes of trying to make it into the run off,” Brown wrote in a Nov. 7 email to Brithney Buchanan, who did public relations for the campaign and is one of the former staffers awaiting payment.

Brown finished in a distant fifth place with about 5% of the vote in the Nov. 2 general election.

ExploreMore Atlanta City Hall coverage from the AJC

It’s not uncommon for losing campaigns to be in debt after an election.

Council President Felicia Moore, for example, sought donations to retire debt totaling $10,000 after her loss in the November mayoral runoff. After a few days, she told supporters she had met that goal and was able to close out the campaign.

But the full picture of Brown’s finances is unknown, because he has not filed the required financial disclosure report covering the last month of his campaign, which was due Oct. 25.

A spokeswoman for state ethics commission confirmed last week that the campaign still has not filed the report. Campaigns can face fines for late reports, but the spokeswoman said she cannot comment on Brown’s situation.

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Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown at Atlanta City Hall on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown at Atlanta City Hall on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
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Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown at Atlanta City Hall on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Brown said in an interview that the debt is minimal, though he didn’t give an exact figure and said he is committed to working to pay his former staffers as soon as possible. He said they knew at the end of the summer that fundraising would be difficult and the finances were precarious.

“I’m still trying to move mountains to get it done,” Brown said in an interview.

Lance Jones, Brown’s former campaign manager, estimated the debt at between $5,000 to $10,000. He said the latest campaign report hasn’t been filed due to health issues in his family, but he plans to file it soon.

“We all kind of came on knowing what the situation was and agreeing to it,” Jones said of the campaign’s financials.

The financial struggles come as Brown prepares to face trial on four felony fraud charges. Years before being elected to public office, prosecutors allege, Brown took out thousands of dollars in loans and opened several credit cards to make personal purchases, before falsely claiming his identity had been stolen.

Brown pleaded not guilty and repeatedly said he is innocent. A trial date has not been set.

Money ‘allocated for other things’

Buchanan, who is based in New York and Los Angeles, said she has worked with Brown on his business ventures before, and was brought on over the summer to handle public relations with a contract for June through November, she said.

Buchanan said she was paid for her first two months, but that “things started slowing down around the end of July.”

An invoice shows Buchanan is waiting for over $3,700 in payments, covering work in August and a travel reimbursement.

“We saw TV ads the last two weeks of the campaign. We know that there were funds there, it just was allocated for other things other than paying people back,” Buchanan said in an interview.

Another former staffer for Brown’s campaign, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, also said they are owed money.

ExploreCouncilman, mayoral candidate Antonio Brown wants to ‘reimagine Atlanta’

In November, they asked for updates from Brown, who promised them the campaign hadn’t forgot about them.

Rick Thompson, a Georgia campaign finance expert, said it’s not unheard of for a campaign to have outstanding debt after an election. But it all has to be documented in finance reports, and the campaign cannot be formally terminated until the debts are paid.

“It’s definitely the responsibility of the candidate to ensure all of the filings are done, regardless of whether you have employment issues or people not doing it,” said Thompson, who is also a member of the state ethics commission.

Concert fundraiser

A September campaign finance report shows Brown had amassed about $380,000 in donations. The campaign was able to make some big-dollar investments in the final months, the report shows.

For example, the campaign paid $56,000 to Dome in the City LLC for “Marketing, Events, Fundraising and Entertainment.”

The payment was made Sept. 6, the day after the Dome in the City venue — which is located in Brown’s district and has been the subject of noise complaints by nearby neighbors — hosted a “Pride Mega Bash” celebration featuring a concert by popular rapper Latto.

Also on Sept. 6, Brown’s campaign paid $75,000 to the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Richard De La Font Agency for “Donor Network, Entertainment and Fundraising,” the report states. According to its website, the agency books musical artists for public and private events.

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Former mayoral candidate Antonio Brown speaks during an Atlanta mayoral forum on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Former mayoral candidate Antonio Brown speaks during an Atlanta mayoral forum on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
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Former mayoral candidate Antonio Brown speaks during an Atlanta mayoral forum on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Brown had been promoting the Pride Mega Bash event on social media in the days prior, though flyers for the concert didn’t mention Brown or his mayoral bid. Tickets cost between $40 and $60, and sales went to the campaign, Jones said.

It is unclear how much the event raised, but the September finance report shows about $36,000 in contributions under $100 that do not have to be itemized.

Brown said putting on the concert was seen as a creative fundraising effort. Jones said the event was “successful, but it wasn’t as successful as it needed to be,” adding that they hoped to sell 2,000 more tickets than they did.

The campaign also paid over $63,000 to online payroll service ADP for “salary” and “payroll,” the September finance report shows.

Brown made a $15,000 personal loan to his campaign. By the end of September, the campaign had just over $50,000 on hand with a month to go before Election Day.

“It’s difficult to retire your debt,” Brown said. “It’s tough when you’re not an elected official anymore and you didn’t win your race.”

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