Atlanta leaning into changes to 3-year-old inspector general’s office
The City Council is considering proposals to re-organize the office and expand its investigative powers.
Credit: Atlanta City Council
Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, chair of the council's Finance Executive Committee, pictured here listening to Atlanta Inspector General Shannon K. Manigault at the committee's Feb. 22, 2023, work session. The city's independent watchdogs are proposing several changes to the rules concerning Atlanta's anti-corruption agencies. (Atlanta City Council)
The city of Atlanta is reviewing several proposed changes to its inspector general’s office three years after it was painstakingly established to root out corruption at City Hall.
The Office of the Inspector General investigates city contracts that exceed $1 million. The office also reviews allegations of fraud, waste, abuse and misconduct in city government. Its Ethics Division oversees the city’s financial disclosures and enforces Atlanta’s Code of Conduct.
But in November, Atlanta City Councilwoman Andrea Boone sponsored an ordinance to amend the city’s charter to separate the Ethics Division from the OIG. The council tabled it a week later, and since then, the city’s watchdogs have presented several more proposals that were not included in Boone’s original draft.
For more than two hours Wednesday, the city council’s Finance Executive Committee heard proposals from Ethics Officer Jabu Sengova and Inspector General Shannon Manigault. The council also heard proposals from Nicola Hines, chairwoman of the Governing Board of the Office of the Inspector General.
Sengova told the council she supports the OIG, which came about years after the ethics office’s creation in 2002. However, Sengova said the decision to put her office under the OIG’s supervision interfered with the independence of the ethics office.
Sengova also listed other reasons for the separation, including budgetary challenges and concerns about conflicts in case the two agencies have to investigate one another.
“Our quarterly reporting of expenses have been tedious and difficult. At times, invoices have been coded incorrectly, often expensed to the wrong budget. Hiring and onboarding processes have been inadvertently commingled, (and) processing and approval of transactions have also been commingled, often leading to delays,” Sengova said. “Not by any fault of anyone, but due to the structure.”
Some of the council members voiced support for Sengova’s proposal. Regardless, City Councilman and Finance Committee Chair Alex Wan said the council will spend more time discussing all the proposals before they accept any changes to the city charter.
“I am actually supportive of it,” said Wan. “I just want us to make sure we’ve thought through this and it sounds like y’all have.”
Governing Board Chair Hines asked the council to require the city’s watchdogs to submit reports to the board. City Attorney Amber Robinson said the Governing Board can already request reports from Ethics and the OIG without a charter amendment. Still, Hines said the request should be codified for future boards.
Meanwhile, Inspector General Manigault proposed a dozen revisions to the charter ordinance concerning the OIG. Those proposals include full unrestricted access to city records without a subpoena and the removal of burdensome requirements for people to report alleged misconduct.
Manigault said the changes are designed to reinforce the new office’s ability to prevent and identify corruption. Ultimately, she was unable to review the bulk of her proposals during the meeting due to the number of questions from the council.
Manigault and the council acknowledged the meeting as the first conversation of many on this matter.
“I think you’re the top cop we hoped we’d end up with,” City Councilman Howard Shook said. “You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t ask for completely unfettered investigative powers.”
But, he added, “I’m discomforted out of my mind about some of this, and it’s gonna take a lot to get me where you want me to go because our responsibilities totally differ from yours.”
Atlanta’s charter empowers the OIG to issue financial penalties for wrongdoing, and it can refer cases to the city solicitor for court fines and jail time. The OIG can also advise the city on whether to discipline city employees or vendors via contract suspensions, disqualifications or debarment from city work.
Most city departments report to Atlanta’s mayor, but the offices of the auditor, ethics officer and inspector general report to independent boards appointed by the mayor and city council. This is intended to give them the freedom to investigate elected city officials when needed.
Manigault’s office reported last summer that Kasim Reed’s administration misled City Council and the public about the use of tax dollars in three instances when the former mayor said his personal finances were used to repay Atlanta or make charitable donations. Reed denied the allegations, and Mayor Andre Dickens has not voiced plans to pursue Manigault’s advice to seek $83,000 from the city’s 59th mayor.
Meanwhile, Manigault’s office since 2021 has initiated at least 32 probes into alleged misconduct — including instances arising from historical referrals — according to Atlanta’s budget for fiscal year 2023.
Wilborn P. Nobles III covers Atlanta City Hall for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He began covering DeKalb County Schools for The AJC in November 2020. He previously covered Baltimore County for The Baltimore Sun and education for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He interned at the Washington Post. He graduated from Louisiana State University.