Beard, who was one rung beneath Reed in the city’s organizational hierarchy, faces eight criminal charges including wire fraud and illegal possession of machine guns.
The indictment alleges Beard used tens of thousands of dollars in city funds to purchase the automatic rifles, and on personal trips for himself and family members. Beard also allegedly claimed large losses on a tax return by submitting receipts for unlawful expenses paid with his city-issued credit card.
Some former and current city leaders say that the seriousness of the charges against Beard, coupled with the five other guilty pleas or indictments against top officials in Reed’s administration, justify the length of the five-year-old federal investigation.
They also said it helped support prosecutors' claims of a culture of corruption under Reed.
“I want them to take whatever time they need to investigate,” City Council President Felicia Moore said. "The CFO being indicted is any organization’s worst nightmare.”
Reed’s successor, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, has had to grapple with the fallout of the investigation. She said the probe has both helped and hurt the city.
“For the matters in which individuals were found guilty of wrongdoing and unethical behavior, the City believes routing out such behavior is beneficial,” Bottoms said through a spokesman. “The investigation has also caused challenges in attracting and retaining talented personnel.”
Bottoms also said that Beard’s indictment did nothing to change her opinion of the investigation, and said it has dampened morale and hurt the city’s reputation. She also said it is unfair to paint thousands of honest and hardworking employees as corrupt.
The investigation prompted the mayor’s office and council to enact or propose several changes to the city’s ethics codes and oversight functions.
The investigation has also taken a financial toll.
Taxpayers have spent approximately $30 million on outside lawyers who have assisted in responding to the investigation, which has included more than a dozen subpoenas issued to the city law department.
Still pursuing leads
During the five-year-old investigation, federal grand juries have requested millions of pages of records, from contracts and travel records to credit card receipts and schedules of senior officials — including Reed and other city officials.
The scope of the investigation has run from the airport to some of the largest departments at City Hall, such as Public Works and Watershed.
Pak and other federal officials won’t say where the investigation is heading, though they insist they want to bring the probe to a conclusion as quickly as possible. But their work isn’t finished.
“We still have credible information that we are still tracking down,” Pak said in a recent interview. “(We) would be derelict in our duties if we don’t look at credible information.”
There may never be a clear punctuation mark, as Pak said the Department of Justice doesn’t typically announce when an investigation has concluded.
To date, seven people – including contractors and city officials – have pleaded guilty in the federal investigation. Four others, including Beard and political consultant Mitzi Bickers, are under indictment.
The city’s former purchasing chief admitted to accepting cash bribes in restaurant bathrooms from a city contractor. A deputy chief of staff to Reed admitted to taking paid travel and luxury goods from another vendor.
And Bickers, who served as a department head at the city after helping Reed win his first mayoral campaign, is alleged to have conspired with two contractors to turn $2 million in bribes into many millions more in snow removal and sidewalk work. Her trial has been delayed because of the coronavirus.
On Thursday, Beard made an initial appearance in federal court and entered a plea of not guilty. His lawyer, Scott Grubman, said he and his client “vehemently disagree” with the allegations and have vowed to clear Beard’s name.
Many of the Beard allegations, but not all of them, have been in the public for more than two years following reports on credit card spending and the automatic weapons purchases by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News.
Beard’s indictment is very detailed, hinting at a substantial amount of document review, including receipts, itineraries, schedules and tax records.
‘You want to go up’
Public corruption cases can grow in unexpected ways, said Tanya Miller, a criminal defense attorney at DuBose Miller. She has served as a federal prosecutor and a Fulton County assistant district attorney.
“You go one place and then you go sideways,” Miller said. “If you are the government, you want to go up and go up as far as you can.”
Several investigations by the AJC over the past two years found that Beard used contacts in the police department to purchase machine guns and other weapons with taxpayer dollars, and that he used his city credit card for lavish expenses, such as a $10,277 Shangri-La hotel stay in Paris. He repaid the city for the hotel charges after the AJC requested his credit card statements.
Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.
Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.
Federal prosecutors used a subpoena to obtain Beard’s credit card receipts after the AJC published its stories.
So far, Beard is not a cooperating witness for the government, and he has signaled his intent to fight the charges. But some current and former city officials and legal observers questioned if the potential for significant punishment might be leverage for prosecutors to win Beard’s cooperation.
“Let’s see who Jim Beard throws under the bus,” said former City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean.
Pak: ‘It’s been lengthy.'
The current investigation into City Hall will soon outlast the roughly five-year federal investigation into former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who was charged with racketeering, bribery and wire fraud in 2004.
Campbell was subsequently convicted of three counts of income tax evasion in 2006 and served 26 months in prison. That investigation led to convictions of several other city officials and vendors.
Pak acknowledged the current probe into City Hall corruption has stretched on.
“You have to be careful about what you call an investigation because you have distinctive and different investigations into particular individuals” Pak said. “If you are talking about members of the former administration as criminal subjects or targets, it’s been a lengthy one in that sense.”
Pak said the COVID-19 pandemic has had a minimal impact on the investigation, other than delaying the Bickers trial.
Grand juries have continued to meet since May, he said.
“In an overall sense, the agents haven’t slowed down their investigation,” Pak said.
Subpoenas and other documents have hinted at actions under federal scrutiny, though it’s unclear if any might rise to the level of a criminal charge.
Last year, the AJC reported that a law firm funneled $90,000 in airport revenue to former City Attorney Cathy Hampton for “consulting” work after Hampton had officially resigned, but remained on the city’s payroll, based on records requested by the justice department. Federal authorities have not named Hampton as a target of the investigation, and she has not been charged.
Records related to Reed have been the subject of multiple subpoenas, including for his credit card statements, calendars and a non-profit that covered business class airfare for a trip Reed and other officials took to South Africa.
Kasim Reed, who has adamantly denied any wrongdoing, declined to answer questions about how the investigation had impacted him.
“Mayor Reed has not been informed that he is a target of the federal investigation," his spokeswoman said.
Timeline of guilty pleas and indictments from the federal corruption investigation of Atlanta City Hall:
1/25/17: Contractor Elvin “ER” Mitchell pleads guilty to bribery charges.
2/16/17: Contractor Charles “CP” Richards pleads guilty to bribery charges.
9/25/17: Former Atlanta Chief Procurement Officer Adam Smith pleads guilty to accepting bribes.
11/6/17: Former city employee Shandarrick Barnes pleads guilty to trying to intimidate a federal witness.
3/27/18: Former Atlanta employee and Mayor Kasim Reed political consultant Mitzi Bickers is indicted on 11 counts of bribery, money laundering, wire fraud, filing false tax returns and tampering with a witness.
1/10/19: Former Atlanta Deputy Chief of Staff Katrina Taylor Parks pleads guilty to accepting bribes.
5/5/19: Contractor Jeff Jafari is indicted on 51 counts of bribery, tax evasion and witness tampering.
9/4/19: Former Atlanta Contract Compliance Officer Larry Scott pleads guilty to wire fraud and filing false tax returns.
5/1/20: Airport contractor Hayat Choudhary pleaded guilty to paying bribes.
6/19/20: Former Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina is indicted on charges of bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and aiding or abetting the preparation of false tax returns.
9/16/20: Former Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard is indicted on eight counts of wire fraud, theft from the government, possession of machine guns, making a false statement and obstructing federal tax laws.