A Texas CEO held a fundraiser for Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign for mayor last year, just months after the stadium authority she once supervised awarded his construction company a pair of contracts, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News has found.
In total, Con-Real has won at least three contracts from the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, with the two largest coming despite the company submitting the highest bids.
A government watchdog questioned the timing of the contract awards and the fundraiser, but a spokesman for Bottoms accused the media outlets of unfairly implying that the mayor has anything but the best interests of the city at heart.
In April 2017, Bottoms, in her role as the authority’s executive director, signed a consulting contract on what was then known as Philips Arena with Con-Real for less than $100,000. Just days later, she left the authority job as her bid for mayor gained momentum.
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About two months after her departure, Con-Real won a $2.4 million contract with the authority to oversee a $192.5 million arena renovation. The company’s bid was about twice what its only competitor bid.
Both contracts appear to have been executed without the authority board voting to approve them.
Con-Real CEO Gerald Alley emailed business associates inviting them to an Aug. 30, 2017, fundraiser for Bottoms’ mayoral campaign at a hotel in Arlington, Texas. In the email, Alley praised Bottoms as “a very committed servant and successful leader.”
“This will be a brief and informal function and will be very selective of financially committed individuals,” the email said.
It’s unclear from Bottoms’ campaign finance disclosures how much the event raised. Campaign finance records show Alley donated $3,900 to her campaign in late June of last year, just days after winning the arena contract.
Alley did not immediately respond to telephone or email messages.
In a statement, Bottoms’ office said the mayor wasn’t privy to contracting decisions made after she left the authority in April 2017. The statment said she enjoys the support of people who share her vision for the city.
“Furthermore, no favors have ever been asked and none have been given in the awarding of any contracts,” the statement said. “The incessant insinuation that this mayor would act in any matter other than in the best interests of Atlanta and its residents is unfounded, insulting, and most unfortunate.”
The recreation authority is jointly controlled by the city and Fulton County. The city appoints six of nine board seats. Bottoms was appointed to the $135,000-a-year recreation authority job by former Mayor Kasim Reed in 2015 while she served on City Council. The move was controversial during her bid to succeed Reed. She took office in January.
In June, Con-Real won a third authority contract for $1.4 million to oversee a construction project at the zoo. Again, Con-Real had the high bid.
Corporate donations and ones from politically connected business executives routinely fuel Atlanta mayoral campaigns. The intersection of campaign contributions and government business is often fraught with questions of influence.
“The sequence of events is very concerning because [Bottoms is] on the way out [of the recreation authority] and she’s looking to run for mayor and she’s leaving the authority because she’s running for mayor,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “We see contracts being awarded and suddenly this company is sending out a fundraising email for then-candidate Bottoms.”
Bottoms’ substantial financial support from city vendors became an issue in last year’s campaign.
Days before the runoff with rival City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, Bottoms proposed new rules to ensure contractors that donated to her campaign would receive extra vetting to ensure the contract awards were appropriate.
Ten months into Bottoms administration, that proposal has not been implemented, but is in the works, city officials said. The procurement rules would not impact the recreation authority, only city purchasing.
Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens and Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis have each raised concerns about the arena and zoo contracts.
Ellis is also a member of the authority’s board. Ellis’ office said he will seek more information about the contracts and authority policies at its November board meeting.
A spokesman for the authority said the arena and zoo contracts did not require board approval because both were paid for by construction funds and not the agency’s general fund.
Con-Real’s role in each contract is to ensure contractors on the projects complete all work on time and within budget. The company also vets change orders to ensure any additional charges are justified.
The authority has said Con-Real’s work will save taxpayers far more than their contracts are worth.