Atlanta council, mayor at odds over plan to stem corruption

Atlanta City council president Felicia Moore authored proposed legislation to create a new compliance office to investigate allegations public corruption and other violations in city government. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Atlanta City council president Felicia Moore authored proposed legislation to create a new compliance office to investigate allegations public corruption and other violations in city government. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

In 2017, as a federal corruption investigation  at Atlanta City Hall was expanding, public outcry for reform influenced the platforms of most politicians running for city office.

Then-Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms made ethics and government transparency a cornerstone of her bid to become Atlanta’s 60th mayor. She even issued her own 10-point ethics plan that promised to address the concerns.

But after her first year as mayor, Bottoms has left key parts of her plan unfulfilled.

And last Wednesday, as the mayor was at a conference in Washington D.C., City Council President Felicia Moore seemed to supplant the mayor's own agenda when she held a press conference at City Hall to announce a new clean government initiative.

The council wants to create an independent compliance office to investigate wrongdoing at all levels of Atlanta government, a proposal that’s almost identical to point No. 3 on the mayor’s own ethics plan. A supermajority of the council has agreed to sponsor the legislation that would effectively create a municipal version of an inspector general.

“I think they probably got tired of waiting,” said former City Council President Cathy Woolard, who also was a candidate in the 2017 mayoral election.

The move seemed to put the city’s legislative branch in the lead on confronting the issues highlighted by a 3-year-old federal investigation. The council’s action places Bottoms in an awkward position of having to decide if she’ll support a key piece of her platform that others seem to have taken the lead on.

“All of us are independently elected and we all went out to people and asked them to vote for us and said we would do certain things,” Moore said. “My things were transparency, ethics and accountability. This kind of fits.”

For nearly three days, Bottoms did not comment publicly on the council’s plan that it announced in a press release issued on Tuesday. Late Friday afternoon, Bottoms’ office issued written responses to AJC questions.

The compliance officer proposal put forth by the council was not how the mayor envisioned that position, according to the statement. The mayor’s office said the compliance officer pledge “has largely been accomplished” by transparency officer legislation that the council approved last year.

The mayor’s office said she had adopted or made progress on seven of the 10 pledges in her ethics plan. A spokesman said the mayor had added significant measures beyond the original plan.

“In her first year in office alone, Mayor Bottoms has ushered in the most sweeping ethics and transparency reforms in the City’s history,” her spokesman said in a written statement.

‘I didn’t know’

Moore's announcement on Wednesday came just a day after the City Council approved legislation to shore up the city's credit card policy.

The new ordinance prohibits all spending on city-issued credit cards that isn’t directly related to city business and identified a laundry list of banned purchases: dry cleaning, alcohol and tobacco, plane tickets for family members, cash advances, gift cards, calling cards, memberships at wholesale warehouses, in-room hotel movies and mechanical repairs for personal vehicles.

Most of the items listed were examples of inappropriate purchases under former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration uncovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

Following the reporting last year, Bottoms proposed new policies to address credit card abuses. But the council policy that was adopted added its own twist to the mayor's proposal.

Councilman Andre Dickens insisted that the new rules be put into the city’s code so that violating them became a more serious offense. Shortly after the legislation passed on Tuesday, Bottoms issued a statement that seemed to take credit for the reform.

“In keeping with our Administration’s commitment to building an ethical, transparent and fiscally responsible government, we have taken yet another significant stride towards sound stewardship of public dollars,” said Mayor Bottoms.

After her press conference Wednesday, Moore said she wasn’t aware that a compliance officer was part of Bottoms’ agenda. But the council president said she wasn’t surprised and added that other mayoral candidates also championed the idea.

Moore said she thought former state Sen. Vincent Fort was the first to propose it.

“I didn’t know that was on her list,” Moore said of Bottoms’ plan. “That’s good.”

The legislation creating the compliance office, which would be overseen by an independent board, is accompanied by a resolution requesting that the mayor agree to provide $1.4 million in funding for it from her next budget.

Bottoms has yet to indicate if it’s something to which she would agree.

Moore said she had a meeting scheduled with Bottoms to discuss the proposal before the announcement, but the mayor had to reschedule.

The legislation is now in the hands of the City Council’s Finance Executive Committee. A work session to discuss it is scheduled for next Friday.

‘The last scandal’

This latest twist and turn on ethics reform at City Hall is part of a familiar cycle in Atlanta politics.

Scandals emerge. Indictments ensue. New safeguards are enacted. Repeat.

“The council is usually better at looking back at the last scandal and trying to fix that rather than looking forward and being proactive,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University

The last time Council Member Michael Julian Bond can remember a council so actively engaged in passing reforms was in 1992 when Bill Campbell, then a council member, proposed sweeping ethics legislation in the aftermath of allegations of widespread fraud and kickbacks at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The next year, Campbell was elected mayor. He spent two terms in office before being indicted on charges of racketeering, bribery and wire fraud. Campbell was acquitted of those charges, but convicted of failing to pay taxes on $160,000 worth of income. Campbell was sentenced in 2006 to 30 months in federal prison, but was released early.

After campaigning on a platform of restoring integrity in City Hall, Shirley Franklin succeeded Campbell in 2002. She rewrote the city’s ethics code, giving an independent ethics board subpoena power and the ability to levy fines against city officials and employees who violated the code of conduct.

Franklin’s reforms couldn’t prevent what prosecutors have described as rampant corruption in the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed, who succeeded her.

The ongoing federal investigation of City Hall, which dates to at least 2015, has netted guilty pleas from two senior Reed aides — former chief purchasing officer Adam Smith and former deputy chief of staff Katrina Taylor-Parks. Both admitted to accepting bribes. Two construction company CEOs also have admitted to conspiring to pay bribes to win lucrative city contracts.

However, prosecutors have used ethics rules for city employees and officials to disclose outside income as evidence of illegal gains in recent indictments.

Newman said the latest proposal by the council is a good step, but eradicating corruption in any big city is a difficult task.

“You are always going to have the problem of corruption,” he said. “It’s just inevitable.”

Why it matters

A plan was unveiled to create an independent compliance office to investigate fraud, waste and abuse. The move puts the city’s legislative branch in the lead on confronting the issues and put the mayor in a the position of having to decide if she’ll support a key piece of her agenda that others seemed to have usurped. Ethics issues at City Hall have been in spotlight the past few years as federal investigators examine the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed.