Half truths and innuendo have long been among the dark arts honed by political operatives.
For the past several months, they have marked the campaigns of those vying to become Atlanta’s next mayor.
As Tuesday’s runoff election between councilwomen Mary Norwood and Keisha Lance Bottoms has neared, the allegations of shady business dealings, inappropriate payments and financial irresponsibility have only intensified.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution turned to public records to separate fact from fabrication.
The newspaper examined out-of-state property records, campaign finance reports, secretary of state filings, city payroll data, voting records, tax liens and documents provided by the two campaigns.
Those records revealed some allegations were true, others false and still others a shade in between.
Bottoms compliance with public disclosure laws: AJC reviews of Bottoms’ campaign finance reports found disclosure of donor and expenditure information lacking pervasively, in violation of Georgia law. The reports did not detail who was paid nearly $182,000 for campaign staff work, nor was employment information provided for 20 percent of her donors.
Bottoms called those omissions “bookkeeping errors,” and said Tuesday that the AJC’s story reporting that her campaign’s financial disclosures were under investigation by the state ethics commission were “irresponsible and false,” and that the commission was performing a standard review of both candidates disclosures.
But Stefan Ritter, executive director of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, told the AJC last week that his agency had identified the lack of itemization in payments to staff in Bottom’s campaign finance reports: “The Campaign Finance is aware of the concern and is investigating it and cannot comment further.”
The Bottoms’ campaign has amended its reports with additional information, although some of it raises additional questions. For example, Mayor Kasim Reed’s scheduler, Cheryl Pe, has worked for Bottoms’ campaign since January; and the city’s lobbyist, Gabrielle Allmon Sanders, was paid by the campaign for “community events.” Pe is working on the campaign in her spare time and Sanders has been on unpaid leave from city since September, a Reed spokeswoman told the AJC. The mayor himself has endorsed Bottoms.
And some of the information added to Bottoms’ reports provide no transparency. One campaign staffer is listed on the report as having a first name “Phone” and last name “Banker.”
Norwood’s campaign has a disclosure error with which it is dealing. The campaign reported a $62,500 payment to Trend Strategies on Oct. 13, when that payment should have been recorded as going to the Balduzzi Group for direct mail advertising.
Norwood campaign treasurer Jamie Ensley said the report would be amended over the weekend.
City payments to Norwood’s company: Bottoms has alleged that Norwood’s robo-calling business was paid tens of thousands of dollars while she was a member of the Atlanta City Council. An AJC review of available public records found that to be partially true.
Norwood incorporated a company called One Call Systems in the early 1990s, before her first run for council. That company appears to have been renamed One Call Web in the late ’90s, with Norwood listed as chief executive officer, chief financial officer and secretary, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
The company was used by a variety of private businesses and political candidates, including prominent Democrats. Norwood said One Call Web became a city vendor before her first run for council in 2001.
After winning a seat on the council, Norwood said she used her council office funds to pay the company about $3,000 for three community surveys. The company was also used by the city when Norwood gave up her council seat after her failed mayoral run in 2009.
“I used the company for maybe two or three surveys over eight years,” Norwood said. “Yes, the company was paid with city funds. But in my years, there is no payment to me. I never got a salary. I never got a distribution of money.”
Norwood said she sold her interest in the company in 2012. She used the company for her 2012 council election, and paid it $1,988 from her campaign funds, records show.
Bottoms’ tax liens: Georgia’s lien index shows that Bottoms and her husband accumulated liens totalling more than $68,000 since 2006. The Georgia Department of Revenue filed a $38,695 tax lien in 2006 against Bottoms and her husband, Derek, for income tax due in 1998, 1999 and 2001. The lien was cancelled in 2008.
In 2011, the federal government filed a tax lien against the couple for $25,160. The government cancelled that lien in 2012.
Between 2012 and 2015, the City of Atlanta filed two liens and Fulton County filed another against the couple’s primary and rental homes.
Those liens appear to be for unpaid property taxes that range from $96 to $1,233 — all of which were eventually paid.
In May 2015, the homeowners’ association where the Bottoms owns a rental home filed an $800 lien for delinquent assessments; in Nov. 2016, the homeowner’s association in the subdivision where the couple lives filed a lien of $750 for the same reason. Both those liens were satisfied.
In a debate, Bottoms said the earliest liens stemmed from financial difficulties the couple had because of medical expenses involving unsuccessful attempts to have children. Her campaign did not respond to AJC questions asking for an explanation about the more recent liens.
Norwood’s tax lien, property ownership: The Bottoms campaign has alleged that Norwood has not reported Augusta properties that she owns on her city financial disclosure reports. She also says one of them had a property tax lien in 2015.
“If you look on the Richmond County records, you will see that Mary Norwood has multiple properties … and these properties are not listed on her financial disclosure that we are required to file,” Bottoms said on Tuesday.
But property records show that Norwood’s brother, George Dugas de Vallon Bush, purchased two properties formerly owned by their parents — a storefront on Broad Street and their mother’s home on Buena Vista Road, both in Augusta.
Bush purchased the Broad Street store front from the family trust after his mother died in 2012. The property has been home to a Mexican restaurant owned by Bush since the 1990s. Proceeds from the Mexican restaurant’s rent continued going to Norwood’s mother until she died, and then Bush purchased the property and the sale price was split among Norwood and her siblings.
The same transaction occurred, records show, when Bush purchased his mother’s home on Buena Vista after her death.
Norwood did not own the properties in either case.
“The sale price was divided among the trust members,” Norwood said. “We don’t report our income. We report … real property interests. But I didn’t have real property. Mother had the house … George purchased it. I never had the house.”
Norwood’s name shows up on a $2,154 lien against the Broad Street property in 2015. Bush said the lien was mailed to all of his siblings because it was filed against the family trust, not against Norwood individually.
“When I bought that property, I became the managing trustee of the family trust,” Bush said, adding that when his mother died the tax bill for Broad Street was sent to an address at which he no longer resides. “Somehow, Broad Street slipped through the cracks and … we missed one tax bill before my company purchased the property.”
Norwood’s political affiliation: Norwood describes herself as a progressive independent, but she has been labeled a “closet” Republican by Democrats supporting Bottoms’ campaign.
Her voting record shows that she has voted in 10 Republican primary elections and seven Democratic primaries.
“All the times I voted in the Republican Primary, there was no Democrat on my ballot — it wasn’t that I chose Republican over Democrat,” Norwood said.
Norwood’s campaign hired two consultants who worked on the campaigns for Georgia Republican Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson, according to her campaign disclosure reports.
Bottoms’ supporters point to Norwood stumbling in public forms when asked questions about police profiling and President Trump’s policies and behavior. Norwood says she voted for Obama and Hillary Clinton in the last two presidential elections.
The candidates’ tax returns: The Monday before Thanksgiving, Norwood released all of the 1040 forms from her federal personal tax returns, as well as those of her business Norwood communications for the past nine years. When the AJC requested to review additional supplemental forms that Norwood had filed with the U.S Internal Revenue Service, she provided the newspaper with unredacted copies.
Bottoms posted portions of her returns on her campaign’s website Wednesday night. She only released her personal federal income tax returns dating back to 2010. The returns were unsigned and heavily redacted.
Bottoms reported her filing status as married, filing separately. She did not make public her husband’s returns. Derek Bottoms is an attorney and executive vice president for Home Depot.
Georgia News Lab reporters Harrison Young and Jenna Eason contributed to this story. MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.
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