Atlanta council orders review of funds spent on Bottoms’ campaign staff

Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta, speaks at the State Of The City Business Breakfast last Thursday. She touted her commitment to transparency and ethics reform among her accomplishments during her first 14 months in office. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta, speaks at the State Of The City Business Breakfast last Thursday. She touted her commitment to transparency and ethics reform among her accomplishments during her first 14 months in office. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

The Atlanta City Council on Monday called for an independent investigation to determine whether payments from the city to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign staff violated city code, state law, the state constitution or Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

The council's resolution requesting the investigation comes after an article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday found that six Bottoms campaign staff members were issued payments for a pay period in December 2017, before the city had formally offered them jobs.

That article also found that political supporters of the mayor were given job titles based on desired salaries, not their job qualifications or responsibilities. And it found that Bottoms’ former campaign manager Marva Lewis was briefly made an Airport Deputy General Manager and received payments out of airport funds, in possible violation of FAA regulations.

"There were serious allegations made by the paper," said Councilman Howard Shook, who introduced the legislation. "When you see those kind of allegations, I think its important to, as quickly as possible, find out, well, what happened."

Shook said he did not seek Bottoms administration's input prior to drafting the resolution, which mirrors findings in the AJC article.

For her part, Bottoms acknowledged for the first time Monday that she tried to get the city to add members of her campaign staff to the city payroll before she took office. But the mayor had no explanation for why Lewis, who later became her chief of staff, had been paid out of federally regulated airport funds.

“I don’t run away from the fact that I wanted people from my team hired to help with the transition,” Bottoms told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after a press conference Monday. “I don’t know why they did it the way that they did, other than that’s the way they’ve always done things.”

Monday’s resolution represents a council action against the sitting mayor unlike any that Bottoms’ predecessor faced during eight years in office.

The auditor and ethics chief are independent of the mayor’s office, and the resolution authorizes them to hire an outside law firm, which represents a stern rebuke of the administration’s attempt to casually shift blame away from itself and onto the human resources chief from the Reed administration.

By authorizing the use of outside counsel to help with legal interpretation, the resolution also calls into question an anonymous opinion from the law department which said the mayor had the authority to administratively reorganize any department as he or she desires.

In the resolution, the council requests that a report be produced within 60 days and that it specifically includes findings about who authorized the use of airport revenue to pay any of the campaign workers.

Bottoms also said on Monday that she couldn’t identify the person responsible for the personnel moves, but suggested former Human Resources Director Yvonne Yancy as a strong possibility. Yancy led the city’s HR department under Mayor Kasim Reed.

“I want to assume it was the HR director,” Bottoms said. “She was the one who signed off on it.”

But records obtained by the AJC show that all the decisions about the six workers on her campaign were finalized after Bottoms had been sworn into office. None of the job offers or payments bear Yancy’s signature.

“Any assertions or suggestions that I approved or was responsible for the payment of Mayor Bottoms’ former campaign workers in December are completely false and stand in direct conflict with documents and correspondences related to this matter,” Yancy said in a statement on Monday. “I can not take responsibility for hiring decisions that were made by the current administration after my last day of employment.”

Bottoms was sworn into office Jan. 2, 2018. The paperwork that authorized checks to the six campaign workers totaled more than $26,000 and was finalized on Jan. 9. It was also made their start dates retroactive to Dec. 14 — a pay period that occurred before they had been offered city jobs.

The city has previously said that it repaid the airport the money used to pay Lewis. But that payment didn’t occur until more than a year later and two days after the AJC raised questions about it. Federal regulations prohibit the use of airport funds for non-airport expenses.

Lewis, who announced in January that she was resigning from the mayor’s staff, took to Facebook over the weekend to defend herself.

“This was not guided by me or the mayor,” Lewis wrote. “What is now evident is the level of incompetence and antiquated HR policies where one would ever think it is acceptable to place someone in a role where the funding is misappropriated.”

Yancy provided the AJC with emails on Monday that showed Lewis had inquired about open city positions on December 15, 2017 — ten days after Bottoms defeated fellow city councilwoman Mary Norwood.

“It is my understanding that there are a number of positions that will be open as people have accepted roles internally and externally,” Lewis wrote to former Chief of Staff Candace Byrd and former Chief Operating Officer Dan Gordon. “Do either of you have a list of those roles by department?”

The email was forwarded to Yancy, who responded 10 minutes later, saying that the information was being gathered. Within a couple of days, Yancy forwarded several lists of vacant positions to Lewis. But she did not meet with the transition team.

“During the mayoral transition, there were several meetings scheduled with various departments to facilitate the transfer of operations,” Yancy said in a statement. “The HR transitional meetings were cancelled by members of the incoming administration. As the meetings did not occur, I provided information on job vacancies via email.”

Lewis said Monday she doesn’t recall the cancelled meetings.

“To the best of my knowledge, I recall at least one meeting” with Yancy, Lewis said in a statement to the AJC on Monday. “We met with Yancy to review the organization chart and cover who was planning to stay/leave at the Cabinet level.”

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this story.

Our reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that six of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign staff were received checks through the city’s payroll system for the last two weeks of December 2017 — before Bottoms was sworn into office and before any of the six even applied for city jobs. The AJC also found that Bottoms campaign manager Marva Lewis was paid for a month with federally-regulated airport funds despite never having worked at the airport. The mayor’s office arranged repayment to the airport from the city’s general fund after reporters questioned a mayoral spokesman about it. The AJC began looking at Bottoms’ transition team after reporting on former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall being given a $137,000-a-year position as senior advisor to Bottoms in violation of the city charter, which prohibits elected officials from city employment for one year after leaving office.