Former Atlanta CFO repays $10K Paris hotel bill after AJC stories

The Shangri-La Hotel in Paris offers sweeping vistas of the Eiffel Tower and River Seine, along with authentic “old world elegance” from its history as the estate of Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandnephew, Prince Roland Bonaparte.

The hotel is a "princely residence" with its centerpiece a "grand staircase fit for royalty," and rates that range from $1,223 to $4,662 per night, according to the Shangri-La website.

Atlanta taxpayers covered the cost of that upper-crust experience for the city’s former chief financial officer, until he repaid them — a year later.

Atlanta CFO Jim Beard used his city-issued credit card to pay for a $10,277 Shangri-La stay in April 2017. Beard repaid taxpayers two months ago — on April 17, 2018 — just weeks after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News obtained statements showing his use of a city-issued credit card during Mayor Kasim Reed’s last three years in office.

The city could not provide the news organizations with any of the required documentation for the trip — no receipt, no bill, and no justification explaining the city business to which Beard tended in Paris. The review and approval of credit card charges is made by the city’s Finance Department, over which Beard presided.

Both city policy and state law prohibit using government charge cards for personal purchases.

Beard's repayment came after the news organizations produced stories about Reed's lavish spending with his card, and the former mayor's repayment to the city of $12,000 just before those credit card statements were released to the AJC. Days after that story, the U.S. Attorney's Office, which has been investigating City Hall corruption for two years, issued a subpoena to the city asking for documents related to Reed's credit card use.

Beard said in a statement issued through a private spokesman that he was in Paris for “due diligence on certain street furniture and other concepts under consideration” by the city. His statement did not address several AJC questions, including why he submitted none of the paperwork required when traveling on official city business.

“During the trip, I requested an upgraded room and provided my personal credit card,” Beard’s statement says. “In May or June 2017, it was brought to my attention that the trip was not billed as requested and thus I provided reimbursement with a personal check and considered the issue closed.

“In the first quarter of the new administration, a review of all expenditures was requested by me, at which time it was discovered that this item was still open. Upon review of my personal account it was discovered that no presentation of the check was found and thus a new check was issued.”

Beard, who made $273,000 a year as CFO and received a $15,000 bonus from Reed in December, offered no description of the other concepts he says he researched while in Paris.

Jeff Brickman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a criminal defense attorney, called that explanation comical. Brickman also said Beard’s use of the card could be criminal and  repaying the money spent on the hotel doesn’t absolve him.

“At what point is someone going to go: ‘This is absolutely not believable.’?” Brickman said. “If I were an investigator or prosecutor, I’d want to get my hands on this and take a look at it. “

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, who was on City Council last year, said she is not aware of the Reed administration considering a street furniture program.

“There’s no reason the CFO would be personally going to see a street furniture program — that would be someone from Public Works or Renew Atlanta,” Moore said. “The cost of his hotel stay alone could have bought a lot of street furniture.”

City reviewing card policies

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration declined a requested interview with John Gaffney, who was the Finance Department’s second in command under Beard. Instead, Bottoms’ spokesman issued a statement saying policies and procedures related to the cards are under review. The statement did not address the question as to why Beard was not required to either submit documents for the hotel stay or repay the charge sooner.

“We are wasting no time in evaluating our own internal processes, and the Finance Department is working with the Administration to improve upon practices that simply are not working and build upon what works well,” the statement says. “This is a thorough review of the needed checks and balances that ensure the people of Atlanta have confidence that their tax dollars are put to use in a transparent and responsible manner.”

Beard did not answer other questions submitted by the AJC, including with whom he traveled to Paris and how long he stayed. Beard’s spokesman said the CFO paid back the entire cost of the hotel because he “extended the length of his trip beyond the work performed for the city.”

Last week, the AJC and Channel 2 reported that Beard used his taxpayer-backed card to cover two-thirds of a $12,000 restaurant tab at American Cut in Buckhead — a dinner party for 40 people just weeks before Reed left office. Beard told the AJC that the dinner was a "working … cabinet meeting" with a formal agenda which was inaccessible because of the cyber attack against the city.

Sources speaking to the news organizations on condition of anonymity said that agenda included presenting Reed with a luxury watch, which was paid for by contribution of personal funds by Reed’s cabinet members.

Beard's $10,277 cashier's check was purchased in Harvard Square. As the AJC and Channel 2 previously reported, the city paid $60,000 for Beard to attend a six-week business management program at the prestigious Ivy-league school, and also paid his salary while in Cambridge, Mass. Bottoms demanded and accepted Beard's resignation while he was attending the program.

“It is just this continuing pattern of the AJC finding out something is wrong, and is anybody else taking it seriously?” Brickman said. “Is anyone going to do something about it, and why does everyone have to wait to be told: ‘What about this’?”

Our reporting

The AJC has reported extensively on questionable charges put on city of Atlanta credit cards. Previous reporting on former Mayor Kasim Reed’s charges included a $12,000 refund to taxpayers. Today’s story details a $10,200 refund from the city’s former CFO for a luxury hotel stay in Paris in 2017.