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GBI sends Atlanta open records investigation to AG’s office

The state criminal investigation into open records practices at Atlanta City Hall has moved into its next stage.

The GBI on Monday turned over its case file to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office, which will decide whether the evidence supports criminal charges against members of former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration.

Carr’s office ordered the GBI probe in March following investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that found the city of Atlanta’s communications and law departments attempted to hinder production of public records.

Carr’s office declined to comment.

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· ‘No action needed’: Texts show possible Kasim Reed role in records request

· No violations in text, record case, law firm tells Atlanta and GBI

· Top Reed aide pressured officials to delay records release, texts show

Nelly Miles, a spokeswoman for the GBI, declined to disclose findings of the probe, citing the ongoing investigation. The case file includes interviews and all records reviewed by the bureau.

“The GBI does not make recommendations,” Miles said. “Once we turn the file over to the AG, they will review the file and determine the next steps.”

Then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed addresses the media before releasing 1.4 million documents pertaining to the federal corruption investigation of City Hall in February 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Atlanta probe is the first criminal investigation under the state’s sunshine law since it was amended in 2012 to include criminal penalties.

Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University communications professor and expert in Georgia’s records law, said the investigation was needed “because there’s apparent wrongdoing here.”

“It’s a national case to me to the degree in which the government has thumbed its nose at the public and at the public’s interest here,” Lisby said.

Georgia’s sunshine laws were written to ensure that governments remain accountable to citizens. State law requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three days and provide records as soon as they are available.

Frustrating requests is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail.

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· GBI makes unannounced visit to Atlanta City Hall in records case

· AJC, Ch. 2 ask AG to mediate open records complaint against Atlanta

· ‘Political interference’: AJC, Ch. 2 file AG complaint against Atlanta

The GBI probe followed a joint AJC/Channel 2 investigation that uncovered efforts by Jenna Garland, a press secretary for Reed, who instructed another staffer in the city’s watershed department to delay production of water billing records for city elected officials to Channel 2.

Subsequent reporting found the law department provided legal invoices to the AJC last year that weren’t genuine records.

The AJC and Channel 2 also uncovered text messages last year by Reed’s former top spokeswoman, Anne Torres, that showed she pressured the Atlanta Beltline CEO to ignore the agency’s attorney and delay the release of the CEO’s employment contract. The Beltline, however, followed the law.

Other text messages obtained by the AJC and Channel 2 raised questions about whether Reed may have played a role in delaying production of travel records for Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell.

Reed and others have denied any wrongdoing, and the former mayor declined comment Wednesday.

In April, the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with the AG’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests and seeking mediation to reform city behavior. It also seeks the appointment of an independent public records officer who would be free from political meddling.

Mediation is pending.

Bottoms has introduced legislation for an independent transparency officer to handle open records requests.

>> COMPLETE COVERAGE: Latest Atlanta City Hall investigative content

Our reporting

Reports by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News in March showed the City of Atlanta’s communications and law departments attempted to hinder production of public records. That month, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr opened a criminal investigation of open records abuses, the first known case under state sunshine laws. In April, the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with Carr’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests. In May, the AG’s office said it did not intend to bring criminal charges against the city, but could against individuals. On Monday, the GBI presented its investigative findings to the AG’s office.

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