Audit of Reed administration gives ammunition to his opponents in mayor’s race

With two small words — “I’m back” — Kasim Reed last week leapfrogged five candidates and became the undisputed frontrunner in the 2021 Atlanta mayor’s race.

And with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms officially out, former mayor Reed instantly became the candidate with the most name recognition — and the closest thing to an incumbent running in the wide-open race.

But Reed’s opponents were handed a gift just days before he officially announced his candidacy: a 62-page forensic audit of the former mayor’s longtime chief financial officer.

The audit was conducted by the Atlanta-based Windham Brannon firm. It examined taxpayers picking up the tab for CFO Jim Beard’s $10,000 hotel stay in Paris, two fully automatic machine guns for his personal use, and his pushing through hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses ordered by Reed and handed out at the end of his second term in 2017.

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The audit, requested by Council President and mayoral candidate Felicia Moore, is emblematic of the major challenge Reed faces with voters — convincing them he can be trusted running the city after massive corruption was uncovered in his administration.

And Reed’s own judgment and ethics came under scrutiny, for everything from his own lavish spending with tax dollars to the criminal denials of public records that would ultimately reveal even more corruption.

All of those issues will provide Reed’s opponents with ammunition in debates and attack ads as the race heats up.

Reed sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a sunlit part of Colony Square for nearly an hour Wednesday to discuss his campaign. He wore a gray Tom Ford suit as he said the audit’s findings cannot take away from his administration’s success at cultivating record growth in population, jobs and development.

“People know what the city of Atlanta was like when I was mayor,” Reed said. “There may have been things that you don’t care for and did not like. I want to be a better person and I want to be a better man.”

Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University, said Reed enters the race with the power of name recognition and fundraising ability. But incumbency for him comes with one weakness that his opponents should exploit for their best chance to win.

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“The only thing they have in their quiver is ‘corruption, corruption, corruption,’” Owens said of Reed’s opponents. “It’ll be very interesting to hear what Reed is going to say about oversight moving forward. He can’t just look back at his administration and say, ‘Look at all the good stuff.’”

Reed says he expects his opponents to use his past — including the issues mentioned in the audit — in an attempt to trash his candidacy. He says he is a more mature person and promises a better administration, one with more robust controls on spending, ethics, training and oversight.

“I completely understand the public’s reticence,” Reed said. “I have it as well. No one feels it as deeply as I feel it. And I want the public to know that I will do everything in my power every single day to make sure our city does not have to go through anything like what it went through again.

“But major cities, where you run an organization with 9,000 people, will have challenges. We will deal with them aggressively and directly and we will put controls in place to guard against them.”

Not everyone is buying what Reed is selling.

Mayor Bottoms, who benefitted from an endorsement and fundraising help from Reed during her 2017 campaign, seemed to take a shot at the former mayor last week, in a tweet about the audit. Bottoms sidestepped a question after Reed entered the race about whether she would support his candidacy.

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“The example should always begin at the top,” Bottoms wrote. “Significant ethics and transparency reforms have been lead by our Administration. Always remember, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.”

The federal corruption investigation into Reed’s administration has resulted in bribery convictions against his chief procurement officer, a deputy chief of staff and his head of contract compliance. Beard has been indicted on weapons and fraud charges and has pleaded not guilty. Also under indictment and awaiting trial are Reed’s Watershed commissioner and an operative in his first campaign who became the city’s director of human services.

City attorney Nina Hickson recently told the city council’s public safety committee that investigation-related litigation has cost Atlanta $31 million since 2016.

Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist and former communications director for Gov. Nathan Deal, said Reed will likely do well with GOPers, particularly if he builds a biracial coalition with support from people in places like Buckhead.

“It’s hard to imagine a time where a public figure under the longtime cloud of a federal investigation would be in a stronger political position than he’s in today,” Robinson said, adding that the audit isn’t necessarily symbolic of the federal probe but “it’s certainly in line with a culture that spurred” the investigation.

Robinson said Reed’s opponents have to do three things: “Tell people who they are, assure them that they’ll fight crime, and make Reed an unacceptable alternative.”

“That’s a lot to do,” Robinson said.

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Moore requested audit before mayoral bid

Reed’s opponents have wasted no time in jumping on the audit, and past allegations of improper conduct against Reed himself.

Moore called a press conference Wednesday to talk about the audit’s findings. The council president requested it in August 2019 — long before her mayoral bid. Moore said she thought it was necessary to address “our long-standing checkered history of corruption at City Hall.”

Moore called Reed “a distraction” from efforts to address “the corruption that still has a cloud lingering over City Hall.”

“I love this city and it pains me that people and businesses are moving away because they are tired of the corruption at City Hall, and our failure to deliver city services that people pay for,” Moore said. “It’s time for the city of Atlanta to move forward and not in reverse.”

Candidate Sharon Gay, a Denton’s attorney who was a cabinet member in Bill Campbell’s administration, said she won’t be “distracted by [Reed’s] sideshow.”

Gay told the AJC that the audit confirms Reed “failed to set the basic standards of ethics and professionalism we have a right to expect from our government.”

“Kasim Reed’s tenure as Mayor was stained by municipal corruption, ethical violations and a federal investigation that to this day impedes Atlanta from moving forward,” Gay said in a statement. “I will present the fresh, smart, competent, and honest approach to addressing past and present issues that I am proposing for our city’s future.”

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During his last days in office, Reed directed at least $350,000 in bonuses be awarded to his senior staff and an additional $42,500 to eight officers on his security detail. Reed did not take a bonus himself, but said his team deserved the money for placing the city on strong financial footing.

“What people don’t appreciate, during that time that I was mayor, people were recruiting folks that I felt were very important to running the city,” Reed said. “And they had turned down a number of job opportunities during the last 2 years that I was in office.

“I was paying them because they stayed.”

The audit also criticizes the Reed administration for lacking “a proper and effective Tone at the Top culture and underlying operating philosophy.” It said rank-and-file workers perceived that “executives were not required to comply” with the rules imposed upon lower-level employees.

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One unidentified employee compared the atmosphere during Reed’s time in office to “the wild west,” because internal spending controls were routinely overridden by management, according to the audit.

“Folks we interviewed were at various levels, and some said it’s hard to do the right thing when the person who supervises me is standing over me and telling me to do the wrong thing,” said Charlie McGimsey, principal at Windham Brannon.

That culture is a concern for Craig Nelson, a West End resident who has spent all 63 of his years in Atlanta.

Nelson said he vividly remembers Kasim Reed’s time as mayor, and said he is unlikely to support his campaign this year because he does not think Reed unites people or represents the city well. It’s time to give someone else a chance, Nelson said.

“You’ve got people from all walks of life and from all over the place in Atlanta,” Nelson said. “I hope he loses.”

Yolanda Adrean, who retired from public life after two terms on the city council during Reed’s administration, said the bonuses alone demonstrated a deep lack of transparency with the use of tax dollars and the mayor is responsible for everything that happens in the administration.

Adrean said some voters will gravitate to Reed because of spiking violent crime, but the corruption “leaves the voter with a great big question mark about what kind of people will be in his administration.”

Reed said he accepts responsibility for the corruption and other missteps of his administration, but that reducing violent crime is the biggest challenge facing the city and he has a proven track record on that issue.

“The city was the safest city it had been in two generations,” Reed said.