When Keisha Lance Bottoms was sworn in as Atlanta’s 60th mayor, she promised that her administration would “re-inspire confidence in our city government” with the most “sweeping ethics and transparency reform package in our city’s history.”
That same day, the Bottoms’ administration violated the city charter — Atlanta’s governing document — by allowing former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall to begin a $137,100-a-year job as a senior policy adviser, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act.
Providing the job to Hall violated a charter provision that prohibits elected officials from holding “any compensated appointive office or employment with the city” for one year after leaving office, unless a super majority of the City Council waives the prohibition.
Hall was one of the few candidates in the crowded 2017 mayor’s race to endorse Bottoms in her runoff against Mary Norwood, and donated $1,400 to her runoff campaign. He received three paychecks in January and February, before moving to a $145,000-a-year position at Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency. That job, development director for Proctor Creek, had been created by an ordinance approved by the City Council in December.
Just days from leaving office, Hall was one of 12 council members who voted in favor of creating the position.
Hall did not respond to repeated interview requests, nor did he answer questions sent to him.
Bottoms told the AJC and Channel 2 Action News that she was aware of the prohibition against hiring elected officials, but said she did not know Hall was on the city payroll as a senior adviser to her administration.
“That hire was not asked for by me,” Bottoms said. “That was done by — it wasn’t done by anybody who currently works for my administration.”
When asked who would have been in a position to give Hall the job, Bottoms said it could have been “an administrative error.”
“I can’t speak to it,” the mayor said.
A no-show at City Hall
The paperwork confirming Hall’s job and salary was signed by former Human Resources Director Yvonne Yancy, who worked for years in that position under former Mayor Kasim Reed. That document lists Hall’s starting date as Jan. 2 — the day of Bottoms’ inauguration.
Yancy did not respond to questions submitted to her through a spokesman, who told the AJC that she was tending to a family matter.
The document identifies Stephanie Stuckey, Atlanta’s former chief resilience officer, as Hall’s supervisor. But Stuckey said she was never told that Hall was hired or that she was supposed to supervise him. Stuckey also said Hall never had a desk or phone in her department at City Hall.
“While at the City, I was never asked to — nor did I — supervise Kwanza Hall as a staff member of the Office of Resilience,” Stuckey said. “Any record reflecting such was not reviewed nor approved by me.”
City payroll records show Hall’s three paychecks in January and February totaled about $15,000 — a biweekly rate roughly equal to his $137,100 annual salary. Those documents list the departmental budget from which the money came as “EXE Chief of Staff,” the category used for the mayor’s office payroll.
A former spokesperson for Hall told Channel 2 that Hall believed the money was for unused leave during his time on the council. But City Council President Felicia Moore confirmed council members do not accrue vacation or sick leave.
Hall repaid the city $10,300 with a check dated Nov. 9, about two weeks after the AJC and Channel 2 began asking questions about his employment with the mayor’s office. It is unclear why Hall wrote the check for that amount, when he received $14,932.35 as senior policy adviser.
A city ordinance says employees are liable for any improper salary payments.
There is no record of Hall being paid by the executive office between Feb. 2 and March 19, when he started his job at Invest Atlanta.
Atlanta ethics officer Jabu Sengova said the city’s ethics ordinance doesn’t address the issue of elected officials going to work for the city. When the AJC brought the charter provision to Sengova’s attention, she said she wasn’t aware of it because “in the 10 years since I’ve been here, quite frankly, I’ve never seen a council member come back and work for the city after leaving office.”
‘Most uniquely qualified candidate’
It’s less clear if Hall’s employment at Invest Atlanta violated the one-year prohibition against elected officials taking city work.
In February, Hall was one of eight candidates Invest Atlanta was considering for the position of Proctor Creek development director.
The Proctor Creek Greenway project is one of the city’s most important redevelopment efforts. The city is investing millions to revitalize 400 acres in Northwest Atlanta, with intentions of turning it into seven miles of bike and pedestrian trails between Maddox Park to the Chattahootchee River.
An email from an Invest Atlanta human resources employee, obtained by the AJC, shows an interview was scheduled with Hall before he even submitted a resume.
Hall also did not possess a key requirement listed in the job description: a college degree. Other candidates had earned their masters and at least one had a doctorate.
Emails from Invest Atlanta CEO Eloisa Klementich obtained by the AJC indicate that only one other candidate was selected for an interview.
Klementich offered Hall the job in a letter dated Feb. 26. But in an interview with the AJC and Channel 2, Bottoms spoke as if she had made the hiring decision.
“The job I offered to Kwanza Hall was a job at Invest Atlanta,” Bottoms said.
In a separate statement, a spokesperson said Bottoms “supported the hiring of Mr. Hall as the most uniquely qualified candidate for the position.”
Bottoms told the AJC that the prohibition against hiring elected officials doesn’t apply to Invest Atlanta because it is a separate legal entity from the city.
Invest Atlanta made an identical argument in a lawsuit against the city’s ethics board over whether Invest Atlanta officials could accept free tickets to events at Mercedes Benz Stadium. The ethics board prevailed in May when Invest Atlanta dropped the lawsuit.
A separate ordinance dealing with the city’s Workforce Development Agency puts the Downtown Development Authority in the category of a city agency. The authority does business under the name Invest Atlanta.
Invest Atlanta’s financial reports also describe the organization as “A Component Unit of the City of Atlanta,” and the organization’s employees are subject to the city’s ethics rules.
“My broad sense is that Invest Atlanta is a city agency when it wants to be and is not when it doesn’t,” said former board member Julian Bene.
Lester Tate, a Cartersville attorney and past president of the Georgia Bar Association, said he could make a strong legal argument that Invest Atlanta is part of the city, but there’s no “definitive answer until a court rules on it.”
The ordinance Hall voted for on Dec. 4, 2017, not only directed Invest Atlanta to create the Procter Creek position, but also provided $600,000 in city funds toward the project.
“If we created the position, then they are really tying it to the city,” council president Moore said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.