The Atlanta City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation establishing an Inspector General to crack down on corruption at City Hall — and left intact the independent office of the city’s internal auditor.
It is a move city officials hope will help avert scandals of the past, and undermine arguments from state lawmakers that the city can’t effectively manage its most significant asset: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The ordinance and charter amendment would add yet another layer to a system of financial, ethical and legal oversight that has evolved over decades in response to several embarrassing cases of fraud, theft, bribery and other acts of malfeasance involving high-ranking city officials.
But the ordinance and charter amendment has to pass through three additional votes without substantive changes before it becomes law. It will head back to the council’s Finance Executive Committee next week, and then to the Committee on Council and the full City Council on Feb. 3.
Tuesday’s vote occurred as anxiety riddles City Hall because of what yet might be revealed by three ongoing federal investigations — by the Department of Justice, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Councilwoman Jennifer Ide, a significant figure in shaping the ordinance during negotiations with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration, said it will establish a “strong Inspector General that is going to function well and makes a real promise and pledge to the public that we are holding ourselves accountable to the highest standards and that there is teeth in it.”
The legislation has undergone several revisions and represents the culmination of what appeared as a year-long struggle between the dueling efforts from Bottoms and City Council President Felicia Moore to restore trust in a government barraged by guilty pleas, indictments and subpoenas.
Last year, Moore successfully pushed for legislation creating an Independent Compliance Office that combined the new office with ethics, and the City Council convinced the mayor to fund the position with $800,000. But no one was selected to fill the job.
Meanwhile, Bottoms established a public trust task force that issued a report calling for an Inspector General — a position similar to what Moore and the council had already put in to the city’s code.
A handful of council members caught between two of City Hall’s most powerful personalities negotiated a deal that expanded on both ideas.
The end result seemed closer to Moore’s proposal than Bottoms’.
Bottoms wanted the IG to have the authority to oversee the staffs and operations of the ethics office and auditor — changes that some saw as a potential effort to gut the agencies in retaliation for a joint investigation last year that concluded that the city improperly hired and paid some of Bottoms’ campaign workers.
The legislation approved Tuesday now leaves the auditor’s office independent of the IG. However, the new Independent Procurement Officers will no longer report to the auditor.
Over the past year, the so called IPRO’s have issued reports identifying several problems surrounding contracts selected by Department of Procurement — a major focus the multi-year federal corruption investigation.
The proposal would create three divisions — Ethics, IPRO and Compliance — that would report the IG. All would control their own budgets, but the IG would coordinate and oversee their investigations.
The Ethics Division will continue to police the city’s code of conduct, including conflicts of interest and the filing of financial disclosures.
IPROs will continue to spot check the procurement in contracts involving more than $1 million.
And the Compliance Division would “investigate and take appropriate action” regarding, among other things, “the performance and financial operation of all departments, offices, boards, activities and agencies of the city,” in which the auditor determines the presence of fraud waste and abuse.
The IG will be selected by the current ethics and compliance board. Both the IG and the ethics officer will have the power to issue subpoenas.
Those who favor combining the agencies argue it will allow them to better coordinate and ensure they don’t duplicate efforts.
Rashad Taylor, a senior advisor to Bottoms, emphasized to the council that the Georgia General Assembly was watching the process closely.
“The mayor has spent a lot of time at the state capitol over the last few weeks,” he said. “I imagine she will spend more time over there in coming months. They are watching. The city is watching. And they expect us to pass a strong Inspector General legislation, free from political interference.”
Although the idea for an IG emerged out of Bottoms’ public trust task force, the council was more of a driving force behind the effort to ensure the position became a reality.
In November, Moore wrote the mayor and council a letter calling for the position’s effective and expedient development.
The next month, Ide drafted IG legislation. But just before introducing it, the councilwoman agreed to a request from the mayor’s office to negotiate the details.
Ide’s initial draft did not call for folding the auditor and ethics officer under the authority of the IG.
The negotiations grew in number, length and intensity as the Georgia General Assembly prepared to convene last week.
The bill was still being finalized for most of Tuesday and a copy was not provided to council members until after just before they voted on it.
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