Atlanta mayor’s veto won’t stop investigation, opponents say

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ veto of a resolution calling for an investigation into her administration isn’t likely to stop the inquiry. However, it has raised questions among some critics as to whether she is a champion for open government.

The veto comes at a time when the mayor and the City Council, on which she recently served, have squared off over several key initiatives intended to reform the culture at City Hall, and after Bottoms has spent more than a year trying to change public perception about corruption in local government.

The council resolution requesting the investigation came in response to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article published on March 17. The newspaper 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 AJC article reported 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.

Brinkley Dickerson, a partner at the law firm Troutman Sanders, said Bottoms’ handling of the fallout from of those revelations has caused him to fear that new administration is slipping into the cronyism of the past.

Elected officials look their worst when they attempt to prevent someone from reviewing the legality of what they have done, he said.

"It looked bad when our president did it," said Dickerson, referencing President Donald Trump's efforts to subvert an inquiry into allegations the White House obstructed justice. "It looks bad when our mayor tries to do it."

The council's resolution sparked a flurry of correspondence beginning on Friday when Bottoms sent a letter to councilmembers. She argued that the resolution violated the city's charter because it gave the city's auditor the authority to hire an outside law firm to assist with the investigation and it included a threat that she could veto it.

That letter was followed by a missive on Monday from City Auditor Amanda Noble to Councilman Howard Shook, who sponsored the resolution. Noble said she and the ethics office planned to move forward with the investigation without outside legal help.

"To address the Mayor's concern, we will not seek outside legal advice or draw conclusions regarding the legality of the transactions," Noble wrote. "If so desired, the City Council can follow its established process to hire outside counsel to review our findings."

The mayor’s spokesman, Michael Smith, said Wednesday Bottoms was unaware of Noble’s letter.

‘Given the current mayor a pass’

Late Tuesday night, Bottoms formerly vetoed the resolution.

Dickerson, the local attorney, said Bottoms’ veto was based on a thin legal interpretation of the city’s charter and was reminiscent of former Mayor Kasim Reed, who has not been indicted, but named in subpoenas from a federal grand jury investigating corruption.

"Her predecessor had a very bad habit of claiming what the law was, asserting his authority as a knowledgeable attorney, and suggesting, for instance, that he could give raises or bonuses or other things," said Dickerson, who specializes in corporate governance. "That simply wasn't the law then, and her assertion of what the law is, doesn't make it the law now."

Dickerson pointed to provision in the charter that allows the council to hire outside lawyers.

It doesn’t appear the veto will have any impact on a joint probe by the city auditor and ethics officer into whether Bottoms’ campaign staffers were improperly put on city’s payroll.

The city’s ethics officer and auditor can launch investigations independently of the mayor and council.

City Council President Felicia Moore said the city’s top two oversight officers didn’t need the resolution to begin the investigation.

“The investigation will continue under the authority that the auditor and the ethics officer have,” Moore said.

Bottoms’ veto became fodder in a discussion at the Georgia House of Representatives on Wednesday about whether the state should take over Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

State Sen. Burt Jones, the champion of the takeover effort, mentioned the indictments of city officials and said federal prosecutors seemed to be working up to the top of Reed’s administration. Until now, he said he had excluded Bottoms from that group.

“I’ve given the current mayor a pass during this process,” said Jones, a Republican from Jackson.

Revelations about how the mayor’s campaign staff were hired had changed Jones stance. And learning that Bottoms had vetoed the council resolution had raised even more questions.

“I don’t know why you would do that if it was just an honest mistake,” Jones said.

Our reporting

On March 17, the AJC published an article that said political supporters of the mayor were given job titles based on desired salaries, not their responsibilities and that Bottoms’ former campaign manager was briefly made an Airport Deputy General Manager and received payments out of airport funds, in possible violation of FAA regulations.

The next day the Atlanta City Council approved a resolution calling for an investigation into the campaign hires.

Bottoms vetoed the resolution Tuesday evening.