Atlanta, DeKalb fail to blow the whistle on dubious spending

Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow faced a tough re-election bid last year, after being caught driving drunk in her district. But she bolstered her image in ways her opponent couldn’t match.

Winslow turned homeless people into human billboards. And she got Atlanta taxpayers to pick up the tab.

In the three days before her campaign kickoff, she used city money to pay workers she recruited from homeless shelters and off the streets to pick up trash and had them wear T-shirts emblazoned with her name. The same workers passed out her campaign fliers.

Yet no one at city hall raised a peep.

That’s because Atlanta imposes little oversight on how public officials spend discretionary funds — taxpayer-funded accounts they can control with impunity. That can allow officials to turn office budgets into slush funds to reward political cronies, circumvent bid laws and make personal purchases, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found.

Among records reviewed by the AJC, the starkest cases of egregious spending were in Atlanta and DeKalb County, where top officials have wide leeway to purchase supplies and services. There are no public votes when elected officials want to steer thousands of dollars to a pet cause, and they don’t have supervisors poring over transactions and demanding receipts.

As long as elected officials don’t overspend their annual budgets, their governments are often loath to blow the whistle on even flagrant abuses, the AJC found.

Other local jurisdictions have controls that make misuse of public funds harder to hide. Fulton County commissioners aren’t issued government credit cards, and their spending, with receipts, must be routed through their clerk’s office, the Purchasing Department and the Finance Department, which has been known to flag unjustified expenses.

In Cobb, the five commissioners share a $36,000 budget for operating costs with the county manager, and payment requests must go through Finance. Metro Atlanta’s second-largest city, Sandy Springs, doesn’t give its mayor or council members discretionary money.

But no questions were asked in DeKalb County when Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton and her top aide rang up enough Visa card charges on electronics and equipment to supply a small business. Sutton didn’t keep records to explain more than $10,000 in those purchases, and the county didn’t bother to inventory the equipment, some of which the commissioner says she took home.

An ethics investigation of fellow DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer came about only after the AJC’s ongoing review of discretionary spending exposed how she had used her county Visa card to make thousands of dollars in personal purchases. She reimbursed about half of the expenses within months, but failed to repay $8,000 until the AJC sought her receipts.

In Dacula, when Councilman Gregory Reeves used his city credit card to pay for shoes, pizza and other personal items, city employees cried foul, but the mayor merely asked him several times to stop. Only after Reeves’ purchases topped $11,000 did the case get referred to the Gwinnett District Attorney for prosecution — a rare step when elected officials tap the till.

“It’s troublesome, isn’t it?” said Katherine Willoughby, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University. “People do fear that if they bring anything up, it’s going to come back on them.”

Tapping the public

Winslow, a repeat violator of Atlanta’s ethics ordinance, may be the poster child for a broken system.

The city’s Ethics Office – an independent agency — three times found she had used taxpayer resources to help get reelected.

City officials spared her any tongue lashings, though.

Meanwhile, the city continued to reimburse Winslow for dubious expenses, the AJC found.

She paid a political ally more than $20,000 in the last fiscal year to mow lots in her district, including the eyesore lot across the street from her home.

And she charged the city for $2,000 in gasoline last year, often filling up twice on the same day or on back-to-back days, and giving the city no explanation for buying enough gas to circle I-285 four times.

The city also didn’t bat an eye when Winslow sought reimbursement for paying her homeless trash-pickers $5 an hour for their clean-up work in the days leading up to her campaign kickoff.

They passed out her campaign fliers that same week. Winslow claims she paid them for that work through her campaign account, though at least one worker recalls handing out fliers on a day records show she received city money.

Winslow’s opponent, Torry Lewis, said Winslow’s use of city money made her impossible to beat. He took just 31 percent of the vote.

“When I’d knock on people’s doors and tell them what I’m going to do to help the district, they’d say, ‘I see Cleta’s people cleaning up the streets right now,’” Lewis said.

Winslow defended the work, saying she is serving her district, not benefiting herself or her campaign.

“I’ve said this to every reporter that’s asked me every time about my expenses: If I can’t help the people in the district that I serve with their tax dollars, and trying to do it the right way – I’m not putting that money in my pocket – then I don’t need to be down here,” she said.

Paying homeless people to clean up streets and lots is part of that service, she said, and she pays for such work year-round.

“I’ve helped a lot of homeless people,” Winslow said.

Trampling ethics rules

Ethics experts see it differently. Since voters who see people wearing Winslow’s T-shirts and doing campaign work would figure anything else they do is campaign-related, there’s likely a city ethics ordinance violation, they said.

“If the same people doing the cleanup, wearing the T-shirts, are also the people who are handing out the fliers and doing all these other express advocacy activities,” attorney and election law expert Bryan Tyson said, “then I think that’s what pushes you over to the side of saying all of this is campaign-related activity. Not some segment of it.”

The burden is on Winslow to prove that she kept their hours and payments divided between cleanup work and campaign work, city Ethics Officer Nina Hickson said. None of the homeless people the AJC tracked down said they received two sets of payments for their labor.

“It does raise these issues of whether there has been improper co-mingling of campaign funds and expenses related to her carrying out her city council responsibilities,” Hickson said.

That’s not the only problem with what she did, the AJC found.

Invoices she submitted to the city for reimbursement showed she paid $5 an hour for the work. That's a violation of federal labor law, which requires a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, according to the local U.S. Labor Department office.

She may have put the city on the hook to pay back wages to about a half dozen homeless people, plus damages and civil penalties.

“We would most likely be looking at that as an employment relationship type thing, even if it’s a one-day activity,” said Eric Williams, director of the Atlanta labor office’s Wage and Hour Division. “So we would definitely be looking at federal minimum wage in that situation.”

While Winslow said the workers agreed to the wage, some recalled the situation differently, saying they were shooed off if they asked for more pay.

“She said that’s all she had to pay the workers, the type of workers that we are,” said Samantha DeLoach, 35, who’s been living on the street for three years.

Lyndell Banks, who lives in the shelter at Central Presbyterian Church, said he knew he was being shorted. He said he spent hours in the summer heat cleaning up around bridges, picking up paper, cutting weeds along sidewalks and handing out Winslow’s fliers door-to-door. When finished, the workers weren’t allowed to keep the Winslow T-shirts, he said.

“At the time, I didn’t have a place to stay,” Banks, 45, said. “And the little bit I do get, it’ll help me get some cigarettes and something to eat.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office would not make anyone available from the city’s legal or finance departments to talk about Winslow’s spending.

“The Law, Procurement and Finance Departments, in collaboration with the Ethics Office and City Council Staff, are reviewing and researching the issues raised,” Reed spokesman Carlos Campos said in an email. “Upon completion of this joint review, these groups will help determine the appropriate next steps.”

City Auditor Leslie Ward audited council member expenses in 2009 and found questionable record-keeping by council members and staff. Among her recommendations was that council members stop being allowed to carry over money in their discretionary accounts from one year to the next.

Nothing has changed since then. By policy, each council member gets $43,000 a year, including postage funds. But by rolling over unused funds, they can fatten their purses by tens of thousands of dollars to use in election years.

In the two years examined by the AJC, Winslow spent $165,000 in discretionary funds, topped by Councilman Kwanza Hall at $218,000 and former Councilman Lamar Willis at $174,000.

Spending for self-benefit

In DeKalb County, commissioners have been allowed to monitor their discretionary spending themselves, with no oversight from county staff.

For much of that spending, they use the county purchasing cards, which work like debit cards drawing directly from county funds.

The county's P-card rules, which the commissioners had signed agreements to follow, forbid using the card for personal purchases. Commissioners also are to keep receipts, as a county auditor has pointedly reminded both Boyer and Sutton.

But Boyer was able in little more than two years to ring up about $16,800 in personal expenses, including airline tickets and a booking at a ski resort, without the county raising concerns.

The county knew what she was doing – she and her husband wrote checks to reimburse DeKalb for about half of that money within days, weeks or months of the purchases. That didn’t trigger a more extensive review, though. It wasn’t until the AJC scrutinized her spending that the county took notice.

Boyer has said she didn’t didn’t think the card policy applied to elected officials. County commissioners subsequently voted in favor of a new policy that explicitly applies to them, although some have said they always were covered.

Still, the county’s independent Board of Ethics isn’t backing off. It voted May 8 to launch an investigation after two men filed complaints. The two want the board to remove Boyer from office and to refer any violations to the district attorney for prosecution.

Boyer declined to be interviewed, saying in a written statement, “I remain very remorseful for my lapses in record keeping and I will embrace the new county policy moving forward.”

Among DeKalb commissioners, Sutton blew her colleagues away in total purchases, according to an analysis by WSB and the AJC. Sutton and her top aide put $75,000 on their purchasing cards since 2011, followed by Boyer’s office with $58,000. Kathie Gannon’s office spent the least, just $9,000 in that time period.

Sutton was missing receipts for more than $45,000 of purchases.

Sutton also topped fellow commissioners in spending at retailers, such as Office Depot, Staples and Wal-Mart.

Her office spent about $24,000 at retailers. Five other commissioners spent less than $5,000, while Boyer's office spent about $19,500.

Sutton had a ready explanation. “Because I do five times the work,” she said, citing her community outreach efforts and work with nonprofits.

The retail purchases, by Sutton and her chief of staff, Judy Brownlee, largely went for office equipment, including printers, a 26-inch HDTV and a $700 laptop computer that weren't in their county offices during a spot check.

Brownlee declined to be interviewed. Sutton acknowledges that she and Brownlee took some of the equipment home, without sticking county tracking codes on them. She said it’s so they can work at home, too.

‘They want to be the boss’

Sutton also said she didn't know she needed to save receipts for the purchases — despite a 2011 audit admonishing her to do so — and thought transaction records and her verbal explanations were sufficient.

“I don’t believe that they’re undocumented,” Sutton said of the missing receipts. “I do believe that we could do a better job with the record-keeping.”

Interim CEO Lee May said that in light of the AJC/WSB findings, the county will implement a system for inventorying equipment purchased by commissioners.

In addition to the equipment purchases, Sutton used the Visa card to pay a $130 speeding ticket, which she apparently received in January 2013 while at a conference in Washington, D.C. The commissioner said she didn't recall that.

And in 2011, she paid almost $6,000 in taxpayer funds to a private law firm that was helping her deal with investigations into her spending by WSB. Attorney Quinton Washington said most of the legal work did not involve the WSB stories.

Joel Edwards, a member of the southside watchdog coalition Restore DeKalb, said the demand for checks and balances should come from the top echelons of government — which is troublesome when they’re the same officials being scrutinized.

“If we had effective leadership in DeKalb County, we wouldn’t have these problems,” he said. “These commissioners, they’re not accountable, they’re spending rapidly and they’re not adhering to the needs of the constituents.”

Dacula Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks said he wishes he’d done more to stop Reeves. After city employees told the mayor what was happening, he counseled Reeves three times in the six months leading up to his arrest.

Next time, Wilbanks said, he’ll take the matter to law enforcement at strike two.

“Where you have problems, I think, is when people don’t understand what that line of authority is,” he said. “And elected officials are notorious for doing this. They want to be the boss. And the bottom line is, they aren’t the boss.”

Digging deeper

Discretionary spending by public officials is largely in the shadows, creating the risk that public money could be used as slush funds. To examine local expenses, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Johnny Edwards has spent the past five months obtaining records and scrutinizing elected officials’ use of government purchasing cards and office budgets.

In earlier stories, he drilled into purchases by DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer — whose transaction records immediately raised red flags. He found that she had used her county card for thousands of dollars in personal purchases, despite signing an agreement stating that such use was forbidden. While she repaid the county for some of the purchases within months, she failed to repay about $8,000 until after the AJC asked for receipts to document her spending. Among other things, she used the card to pay for family airline tickets, a ski resort booking, rental cars and personal cell phone bills, Edwards found.

In his ongoing review, Edwards used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain documents about discretionary spending in Atlanta and several metro counties. He also tracked down individuals who received payments from local officials and asked to see items that officials purchased with taxpayer funds. He spent weeks locating five homeless people who city records show received city money from Atlanta Councilwoman Cleta Winslow during campaign season, learning that they doubled as her campaign workers.

Joined by Channel 2 Action News, Edwards dug into other DeKalb commissioners’ P-card expenses. WSB’s analysis found Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton and her top aide spent disproportionately more at retail and office supply stores than five of her board colleagues. She couldn’t provide receipts for purchases totaling thousands of dollars. WSB went into commissioners’ offices with a camera and couldn’t locate several items listed in receipts from Sutton’s office.

The AJC questions expenses that governments didn’t

Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow:

— used taxpayer money to pay Samantha DeLoach and three other homeless people a combined $320 in the three days leading up to her Saturday, Aug. 24, campaign kickoff. DeLoach said she did some trash pickup but spent most of her time handing out fliers for the event.

Winslow maintains that she paid workers out of her campaign fund for campaign work. Following AJC inquiries, she sent a handwritten document to the city’s Ethics Office which she says proves she used campaign money to pay the workers $240 earlier in the week. But her campaign finance disclosure covering the time period doesn’t show any such payments, and she lists only $140 in non-itemized expenses.

— repeatedly charged taxpayers for $30, $40, sometimes $70 in gasoline at a time. The city’s travel policy prescribes mileage reimbursements for use of personal vehicles.

In October 2012, Winslow submitted a receipt for $20 in gas, writing on the top that it was for an AIDS walk at Piedmont Park, about 6 miles from her house. That’s enough fuel for her to circle I-285 twice. She submitted two receipts dated Sept. 2, 2013 — one for $50, listing meetings, a picnic and a race she attended; another for $20 for meetings. That’s enough gas for her to drive to Disney World.

“We move around,” Winslow said. “We take community service workers, moving them from one location to the other. Gas is very expensive. So I’m not wasting taxpayers’ money.”

— charged the city $11 for a bottle of white zinfandel in January 2013 for a "West End business meeting." City policy forbids alcohol purchases, but no one at the city flagged the receipt. Winslow said she didn't recall the purchase.

“If I did, I’ll reimburse it,” she said. “Normally, what I do is I usually scratch that out. But everybody makes a mistake every now and then.”

DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton:

- with her chief of staff, Judy Brownlee, bought two Hewlett-Packard printers within two months, the first for $228, the second for $277. Sutton said the first one was defective, printing a pink line down the center of pages.

But she couldn’t return it, she said, because she waited too long.

Asked where the printer is now, she said, “It’s sitting in my garage, on the floor.”

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