City of Atlanta to release bribery case contracting records

Atlanta businessman Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. returns to his car after entering a guilty plea in a federal bribery case in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, January 25, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
Caption
Atlanta businessman Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. returns to his car after entering a guilty plea in a federal bribery case in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, January 25, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration said Wednesday it will release records next week pertaining to contracts at the center of a bribery scandal that has gripped City Hall, reversing a previous stance that the city would not release documents until the federal probe was concluded.
The city has so far refused to release records requested by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Channel 2 Action News and other media, citing the ongoing federal investigation into a scheme involving Atlanta businessman Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. The city later said its position on the matter was “evolving” as the federal probe progressed.

Mitchell, 63, last week pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in what prosecutors described as a more than $1 million bribery scheme that netted Mitchell millions in city contracts. He is cooperating with the federal government’s continuing investigation.

An AJC and Channel 2 request for contract records, emails and other routine city documents pertaining to Mitchell was denied, with the city saying the federal investigation allowed an exemption under Georgia’s open records law. The newspaper and Channel 2 also sought emails and records related to certain current and former city personnel.

ExploreRelated: Key figure in Atlanta bribery probe pleads guilty

First Amendment experts said that argument for withholding and releasing records has no basis in Georgia law. Records generated as part of city business cannot be withheld because the city fell under scrutiny from federal investigators, they said.

The city’s reversal came two days after attorneys for the AJC and Channel 2 sent a letter to City Hall demanding release of documents by Friday.

The city’s rationale relies on two exemptions in the Georgia Open Records Act: one for records compiled for law enforcement that might endanger a confidential source or any other individual, or disclose a confidential investigation or prosecution; the second is for law enforcement records during a pending investigation.

AJC and Channel 2 attorneys said neither exemption applies.

“None of the requested records were ‘compiled for law enforcement’ purposes, nor would they disclose a confidential informant, endanger anyone or reveal a confidential investigation,” the letter from attorney Michael A. Caplan said.

In terms of documents related to the ongoing investigation, Caplan wrote that the Legislature specifically said the exemption “shall not apply to records in the possession of any agency that is the subject of the pending investigation.”

In a statement emailed Wednesday to the AJC, City Attorney Cathy Hampton said the approximately 1.3 million pages of records will be released free of charge on or before Friday, Feb. 10.

“As stated previously, the City’s top priority remains assisting in the ongoing criminal investigation,” Hampton wrote. “To that end, the City maintained the confidentiality of records related to that open criminal investigation. The City is also committed to transparency as this investigation continues to evolve.

“The City just learned that the investigation has progressed to a point that certain documents may be produced without compromising the integrity of the investigation,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the city later said Hampton had not reviewed the letter sent by the AJC and Channel 2 attorneys.

David Hudson, general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, said he applauds the city’s revised stance, “especially in light of the General Assembly’s admonition that the Open Records Act is to be broadly construed and exceptions narrowly applied.”

William Perry, head of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said the city should have complied all along.

“The city absolutely should have complied from the beginning, but this is an obvious attempt to protect the guilty,” Perry said. “I feel like they’re overloading the documents so it stalls the process.

On Jan. 25, Mitchell admitted to conspiring to commit bribery to obtain city construction contracts, as well as conspiring to launder money during the time of the scheme. He confessed to paying bribes to an unnamed person under the belief that the money would go to one or more city officials with influence over the contracting process.

Mitchell agreed to testify as part of his plea deal. He has yet to be sentenced.

The story so far

Earlier: Businessman Elvin "E.R." Mitchell Jr. pleaded guilty in what prosecutors described as a more than $1 million bribery scheme.

The latest: The mayor's office will release records next week concerning contracts at the center of the bribery investigation.

What's next: Mitchell has agreed to cooperate with the federal government's case and will be sentenced at a later date.