Atlanta’s candidates for mayor spar over federal investigations during debate

August 17, 2021 Atlanta - Former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed speaks to members of the press after filing paperworks for November 2nd Atlanta Mayoral Election outside the Atlanta City Hall on Tuesday, August 17, 2021. Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed filed paperwork and qualified as a candidate in the November 2nd Atlanta Mayoral Election.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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August 17, 2021 Atlanta - Former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed speaks to members of the press after filing paperworks for November 2nd Atlanta Mayoral Election outside the Atlanta City Hall on Tuesday, August 17, 2021. Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed filed paperwork and qualified as a candidate in the November 2nd Atlanta Mayoral Election. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Atlanta’s leading candidates for mayor discussed the elephant in the room at their first debate Tuesday night — federal investigations involving two of the candidates.

Kiss 104.1 radio host Frank Ski asked the five candidates about crime, the Buckhead cityhood movement, and transportation. But the topic that elicited the most jagged responses was the federal investigations into city councilman Antonio Brown and former mayor Kasim Reed’s administration.

Atlanta City Hall has been under a years-long federal investigation that implicated seven Reed officials and four city contractors, including bribery convictions against his chief procurement officer and a deputy chief of staff.

Reed’s chief financial officer is currently under indictment for fraud and weapons charges. Brown is under an unrelated federal fraud indictment for incidents that allegedly occurred before he won office.

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And Reed himself appears to be under a federal grand jury investigation for alleged wire fraud.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Reed’s campaign has been fighting against a federal grand jury subpoena for campaign attorney Jeremy Berry to testify in the probe.

Without naming Reed, a recent court ruling described allegations that a candidate for local office used campaign donations to make personal purchases, including furniture for his mother, trips to resorts and lingerie. The AJC was able to match the amount of the furniture purchase — to the penny — with an expenditure from Reed’s 2017 campaign finance report.

Candidates Felicia Moore, Andre Dickens and Sharon Gay condemned Reed.

Dickens said Reed’s administration created “the largest federal investigation at City Hall” that unveiled “a climate and a cloud of corruption” that affects Atlanta today. Moore said taxpayers are on the hook for $30 million in legal expenses to respond to more than a dozen subpoenas issued to Atlanta.

Reed stood his ground.

“I’m not under federal investigation, and it would not be an impediment in any way,” Reed said. “During my tenure in office, I didn’t even have as much as a successful ethics complaint filed against me.”

For his part, Brown said he will be “vindicated from all charges” against him and it won’t affect his leadership. Dickens and Moore said Brown’s situation “is between him and the court” because it’s unrelated to his council representation.

ExploreComplete AJC Atlanta Mayor's Race poll results Sept. 2021: Questions we asked, with the answers

An AJC poll of 842 likely Atlanta voters found corruption was not a top priority, as only about 4% said it was the most pressing issue in the race. But 61% said they are “less likely” to support Reed’s comeback bid after they learned about the probe into his previous administration. Thirty-four percent said it had no effect.

Even so, the AJC poll found that Reed has a slight lead in the race at about 24%, although his lead over Moore falls within the poll’s margin of error. None of the other candidates cracked 10% in the AJC poll.

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Ski asked Gay about her role in the administration of former mayor Bill Campbell, who served from 1994-2002. After a years-long federal corruption probe into the pay-to-play culture of city contracting, Campbell in 2006 was acquitted of racketeering and bribery charges, but convicted of failing to pay taxes on $160,000 of income from 1997 to 1999. Ten other people, including Campbell’s top aide and the aide’s deputy, were implicated.

But Gay said she left her role as Campbell’s deputy chief of staff two months into his second term.

“I didn’t know anything about it and wasn’t part of it and was never interviewed by the FBI,” Gay said.

Gay didn’t mince words about Reed’s ties to the investigation.

“Black elected officials have sometimes been held to a different standard,” Gay acknowledged. “But that doesn’t mean that having 10 people in an administration — either senior officials or people closely connected to an administration — indicted.

“Seven pled guilty, three awaiting trial. That’s a very serious matter. It is a distraction.”

All five candidates will also participate in the AJC’s Community Conversation series Oct. 4. The event begins at 5 p.m. and will broadcast on the AJC’s Facebook and YouTube accounts.

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