When a beloved deputy commissioner in Atlanta’s Public Works Department died in 2013, Mayor Kasim Reed wanted to help the family by paying for the funeral and related expenses.
He then handed the bills to taxpayers.
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In all, Atlanta residents spent more than $21,000 on the funeral, reception, food, flowers, a $2,000 cash advance, and printing costs for programs that honored Dexter C. White after the 51-year-old died unexpectedly of natural causes in his home.
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Receipts for the expenses were among millions of pages of documents the city has turned over to federal prosecutors as part of the ongoing investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall, and were recently discovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It is unclear if the funeral spending is part of the federal probe, but legal experts say it violated a provision in the Georgia Constitution, which specifically prohibits government from giving donations or gifts — known as gratuities — to individuals without taxpayers receiving a tangible benefit in return.
The city has faced scrutiny over a wide range of such payments under the Reed administration, from year-end bonuses to senior staff, to cash prizes awarded at holiday parties. A report commissioned by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms earlier this month found that such giveaways violated the state constitution’s gratuities clause and the city’s charter.
“It doesn’t matter how good you may feel about the cause, you just can’t do it,” said Richard Hyde of White’s funeral expenses. Hyde, chief investigator for the Balch & Bingham law firm who held similar posts for two attorneys general and the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, co-authored a 2015 report that condemned DeKalb County for illegal gratuities.
“It’s an illegal payment. If Kasim Reed felt that strongly about paying for the funeral, he could have used campaign money,” Hyde said. “Or he could have raised it privately. What authority does the mayor have to make that decision?
“It’s just outrageous. It’s inexcusable and can’t be done.”
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Reed said it was his decision to pay for the expenses. He called White “a true public servant” and said the city “benefited from his work ethic and professional experience.”
White was “an integral part of the Reed Administration and was highly regarded by employees at every level within every City department,” Reed said in an email to the AJC.
“As Mayor, I used my discretion to assist Mr. White’s family with a portion of his funeral expenses,” Reed said. “It was important to my Administration that Mr. White’s family had the ability to bury him with dignity in light of his untimely and tragic passing.”
Different employee, different treatment
But the Reed administration wasn’t so generous when Public Works employee Derryl Simmons was killed by a drunken driver six weeks prior to White’s death.
In that case, Simmons was thrown from a garbage truck in which he was riding when the driver, another city employee, rolled it over in a ditch. A bottle of vodka was found at the scene and the driver had a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit.
Simmons had no alcohol in his system. His widow, Louise Simmons, said she received $7,500 for her husband’s funeral from Workers’ Compensation. She attempted to sue the city for damages, but found it was exempt from legal action because of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that shields governments from many lawsuits.
“They gave me the minimum, and I had to pay the rest of the cost of the funeral,” Simmons said. “That was very disturbing. Of course it’s not fair. I just felt like everything should have been paid for.”
In 2014, after both White’s and Simmons’ passing, the city added a $40,000 death benefit for all employees.
But the AJC identified another instance when city officials used their discretion to pay funeral expenses for the death of a city employee, even after that policy was adopted.
In 2016, a Parks and Recreation Department employee was struck and killed by a falling tree branch while on the job. The city paid about $13,000 for food, flowers and other expenses related to the man’s funeral.
A $2,000 travel advance
Former City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who was White’s fraternity brother and attended the services, said he was not aware that the public paid for his expenses. When asked if it was an appropriate expenditure for taxpayers, Mitchell responded: “No, certainly not without some sort of process.”
“On the (city) council side, when we want to spend money to support some kind of community initiative, there is a piece of legislation to make sure it’s transparent, and can be scrutinized 100 ways to Sunday,” Mitchell said. “Let’s have a better way of knowing what is proper or improper expenditure. If we had some process in place like that, you take some of the discretion out of it.”
Records reviewed by the AJC show that Minnesota Life Insurance covered $4,335 of the $11,845 funeral home bill for White’s services.
The city paid the balance of $7,500, along with $6,500 to rent space at the Renaissance Hotel in Atlanta for a post-funeral reception; $2,250 for food at the reception; $2,200 for color funeral program books; a $2,000 cash advance to former Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza; and $600 for flowers and banners.
The majority of the bills were paid through the Public Works Department as purchase orders. The $6,500 hotel bill was initially paid with Chief of Staff Candace Byrd’s city-issued credit card. Public Works then reimbursed the mayor’s office for the charge.
Mendoza, who is now Public Works director in Austin, Texas, filled out a travel advance form asking for the $2,000. He wrote on the document that he needed to travel to Savannah on Dec. 21, 2013, for business. The purpose listed on the form is “Advance for funeral for Dexter C. White.”
“I can tell you that the expenses you are referencing were fully and completely sanctioned by the Mayoral administration during that time,” Mendoza said in an email exchange with the AJC. “Travel expenses afforded to me were used for their intended purpose of traveling to the funeral services.”
White was buried in Atlanta. When asked why he needed $2,000 for a local funeral, Mendoza said: “The travel advance was for me to return to Atlanta for the services. At the time I was on holiday leave out of state. I flew in and back out in the same day, flights were higher in cost due to the short advance purchase and the holiday season.”
Atlanta Police Union president Ken Allen said the city pays for the funerals of officers who are killed in the line of duty. There is no such provision for officers who die of natural causes in their homes, and he said there shouldn’t be.
“I paid for me and my wife’s cremation. It’s taken care of, because it’s not the public’s responsibility,” Allen said. “Taxpayers should be livid. This is another example of Reed believing that taxpayer money was his, as long as he held the title of mayor.”