‘Drag this out’: texts sought to block Ch. 2 probe into water billing

Text messages obtained by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution????shed new light on efforts by Kasim Reed's administration to keep reporters from getting potentially embarrassing public records.

In February 2017, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed stood in front of hundreds of boxes stuffed with documents related to the Atlanta bribery investigation and proclaimed his administration to be one of the most open and transparent in the city's history.

One month later, a spokeswoman on Reed’s communication staff tried to slam the brakes on Channel 2 Action News information requests for water service bills at the addresses of the city’s top elected officials.

Text messages between mayoral spokeswoman Jenna Garland and Watershed Department communications manager Lillian Govus on March 7, 2017, reveal the mayor’s office instructed Govus to “be as unhelpful as possible” and to “drag this out as long as possible” when fulfilling the information request.

Garland ends the exchange by telling Govus to “provide the information in the most confusing format possible.”

The text messages appear to be a violation of the Georgia Open Records Act, which mandates that government officials provide responsive documents within three business days of a request if they are available. Obstructing or "frustrating" the release of documents is explicitly prohibited.

“Any person or entity knowingly and willfully … frustrating or attempting to frustrate the access to records by intentionally making records difficult to obtain or review shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,” the statute says.

Clark D. Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia State University, said violations of the Open Records law are typically punishable with a fine. But Cunningham said there's a "good argument" that a conspiracy to violate the law could result in up to a year in jail.

“It seems clearly a crime to me,” Cunningham said of the text exchange between the two city representatives. “It would be appropriate for those people to be prosecuted. Otherwise, where’s the deterrent?”

Garland did not respond to email and text messages sent to her Wednesday seeking comment. She declined to answer questions when approached outside of her home Thursday morning.

Govus provided Channel 2 and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with screen shots of the text exchanges, but declined to be interviewed for this story.

Delays followed by delays

The two city spokeswomen knew immediately that there would be an issue with a Feb. 28 information request from Channel 2, asking for water billing information at Mayor Kasim Reed’s residence and a rental property owned by Reed’s brother, Tracy.

Govus sent a profanity-laced text to Garland that day.

“Big (expletive) problem,” Govus wrote. “Got an ORR for a few addresses. Turns out thousands in unpaid water bills. Properties owned by MKR (Mayor Kasim Reed) and Tracy (Reed).”

Govus went on to tell Garland that Mayor Reed’s property had a disconnect notice, and Tracy Reed’s property was “under investigation for water theft.” The records showed that Tracy Reed’s property had a $9,000 unpaid water bill, and had never been disconnected.

“Jesus Mary and Joseph,” Garland wrote. “Did you already respond?”

“(Expletive) no,” Govus wrote. “I ain’t stupid.”

Text messages from former Atlanta press secretary Jenna Garland (gray bubbles) urged a watershed communications manager to delay release of public records to Channel 2 Action News. WSB-TV

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Water bills for city council members were released April 14, only after an attorney working for Channel 2 wrote a letter threatening legal action. The letter outlines the continued delay tactics by the city: an information request for councilmember C.T. Martin, a longtime Reed ally, was sent by Channel 2 producer Terah Boyd on March 7 and Govus promised to turn over the documents on two successive dates in March but failed to produce them each time.

After the city missed a March 20 deadline for turning over the documents, Boyd added to her request by asking for water records of all other city council members. That became significant because Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was just launching her mayoral campaign, carried an outstanding water balance at her home for a vast majority of months since 2008 — including an average balance of $741 for most of 2015.

Govus told the station that all relevant documents would be released April 7. But Garland again intervened through a text message that day: “Hold all council docs until Terah asks for an update.”

Reed was an ardent supporter of Bottoms’ mayoral bid, routinely hammering her opponents with criticism and lavishing her with praise.

When Boyd asked for an update on April 7, Govus told her she couldn’t provide the documents because she had already left the office for the weekend. They would be released April 10, Govus assured Boyd.

Govus quit responding altogether after missing the April 10 deadline, which prompted a letter from Channel 2 attorney Michael Caplan.

“Ms. Boyd has made repeated attempts to obtain the records she requested weeks ago, but she has been met with shifting deadlines and, most recently, silence,” the letter says. “If the Department does not provide this information by Friday, April 14, we will take appropriate action to enforce the Department’s compliance with the Open Records Act.”

The city released the documents that Friday.

Channel 2 produced three stories on the water bills. When the story about Kasim and Tracy Reed ran, the mayor's office released a statement saying: "Mayor Reed … embraces the public scrutiny that comes with public office" and went on to criticize the station for doing a story that involved his family. Tracy Reed is a former city employee.

The city delayed release of the council members' water bills so long that Bottoms' records were leaked to the station, which led to a stand-alone story about her. A third story about the rest of the council was broadcast after those documents were released April 14.

‘It must be a slow news day’

Both Garland and Govus have left the city. Garland now works in the private sector, while Govus works as communications director for a public school system out-of-state.

Reed did not respond to a text message asking a series of questions, including whether he knew of or ordered the repeated delays. The AJC also left him a voice mail message.

Garland’s supervisor, Anne Torres, still works for the city as Bottoms’ communications director. When told about the text messages earlier this week, Torres laughed and said: “It must be a slow news day.”

In an email Thursday, Torres said she did not know about the text messages between Garland and Govus, and the Reed’s open records policy was to comply with state law.

The water department documents aren’t the first time Channel 2 and the AJC, which are both owned by Cox Media Group, a division of Cox Enterprises, have had to threaten a lawsuit to obtain records.

The city initially denied the news organizations' request for all documents turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office as a result of the federal bribery investigation. The records were clearly not exempt under state law, and the threat of legal challenge led to the city releasing 1.4 million pages of documents in February 2017. Since then, the city has made public about 3 million additional pages of documents related to the investigation.

And when Channel 2 requested receipts for Reed and several of his staff members buying expensive business-class airfare to South Africa, Torres told the station that no documents existed. When Channel 2 received the documents three months later, they showed the tickets had been purchased at the time of the request, and that city taxpayers spent nearly $56,000 for seven people.

Council President Felicia Moore, who as a councilwoman was a regular critic of Reed, said she has repeatedly seen the administration drag its feet on information releases. The text messages are proof, she said, of what everyone suspected was the policy of the administration.

“It’s just a clear indication that they were circumventing the open records law and not providing the information they were legally required to provide in a timely manner,” Moore said. “It’s evidence of what people already knew was happening.”

Channel 2 Action News producer Terah Boyd and AJC staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this story.

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