Two months after leaving office, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed reimbursed taxpayers nearly $12,000 for charges made to his city-issued credit card over the past three years, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.
The charges Reed repaid included a $2,300 political contribution to the Democratic Party; four continuing education courses for his law license; and a string of expensive restaurant bills, with a $906 tab at Atlanta’s Marcel steakhouse being the most expensive.
Reed made the payments with six checks from his personal account — after the AJC requested his credit card statements under the Georgia Open Records Act.
The checks were all dated March 9, three days after a city spokeswoman confirmed to reporters that the credit card statements would be released later in the month.
Reed’s checks cover charges made in all three years, and are in addition to $13,400 he repaid from his campaign and personal accounts while still in office. The city also received about $4,600 in card reimbursements directly from institutions that hosted the mayor, typically for speaking engagements.
Reed said the AJC’s records request had nothing to do with him paying back the $11,851 on March 9, and the city didn’t tell him about it. Spokesman Jeff Dickerson said Reed began independently reviewing charges from 2015, 2016 and 2017 — the exact time period of the AJC’s request — shortly before leaving office.
“The former mayor was conducting his own review to ensure that these and all other finances relating to his time in office were in order,” Dickerson said in an email response to questions submitted for Reed. “In the event the mayor sought political office in the future, he knew his (credit card) purchases would be a matter of interest and wanted to ensure that they were in order.”
Despite Reed’s statement, the timing of the repayments raises questions about whether the city delayed release of the credit card bills to allow the former mayor time to review his charges.
The GBI is currently investigating City Hall for potential criminal violations of the state’s sunshine laws, following disclosures that a former press secretary urged another city employee to delay release of potentially embarrassing records in an unrelated matter.
Reed is the latest public employee to face questions about his use of government-backed charge cards. Abuses in DeKalb County, state government and public universities have led to criminal charges against officials using the cards to make personal purchases. In 2015, the Legislature was so concerned about card abuse that it passed new legislation making it easier to bring felony charges in those cases.
Even with the publicity over charge card abuse, Atlanta’s policy does not specifically address the issue of using the cards for personal purchases, then repaying the city. Officials pointed the AJC to the city’s ethics ordinance, which prohibits using city property for “private advantage.” That would include making political contributions on the cards.
Atlanta Ethics Officer Jabu Sengova told the AJC that she and the city’s internal auditor are currently reviewing the credit card program policy.
“The cards should only be used for official city business,” Sengova said.
Reed said most of the 50 charges for which he reimbursed the city in March were related to legitimate city business. But he decided to repay them “to go well beyond what is required.”
Only two of the charges — the 2016 political contribution and a small Delta airline fee that he said was related to a ticket for his mother — were inappropriate, according to Reed. He blamed a member of his staff for incorrectly using his city credit card to pay for them, despite the policy stating that only the cardholder is allowed to make charges.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Richard Hyde, a longtime investigator who worked for two attorneys general, said when told about the political contribution on Reed’s card.
In 2015, Hyde and former attorney general Mike Bowers identified more than $537,000 in questionable spending by DeKalb County commissioners, some of which was charged to government-backed credit cards.
“The question is always: What is the benefit to the government for that expense?” Hyde said. “Is a law license required to hold the job of mayor? If not, he shouldn’t have the government pay for it. He can’t just spend money like it’s his own.”
In all, the records show taxpayers spent $275,136 paying off Reed’s charges during his last three years in office.
Charge card use escalates in final years
The 36 months of card statements examined by the AJC show Reed ramped up charges during his final three years in office: $73,618 in 2015; $124,635 in 2016; and $151,175 last year, which exceeded his salary of $147,500.
The vast majority of the expenses fell into four categories: airfare, hotels, restaurants and chauffeured car service.
In the last year alone, Reed swiped the card in Washington, D.C.; Houston; Paris; Dubai; Chicago; Miami; Capetown, South Africa; California; Colorado; Las Vegas and Madrid. And, of course, Atlanta.
The card covered more than $61,000 in airfare, and another $25,000 for hotels in 2017. And Reed rarely used taxis. He spent about $10,000 on chauffeured car service last year, and more than $28,000 since 2015.
The September 2016 statement is an example of how quickly Reed’s charges could mount: He purchased 11 flights for $18,375; ordered limo service 12 times for $2,100; slept in five hotels for $2,600; and charged meals from Austin’s Uchiko sushi restaurant ($341) to The Lobster Pot in Dublin, Ireland ($222). None of those charges were repaid.
“Oh my goodness, I’m almost at a loss for words,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “To use taxpayer dollars for things like chauffeured door-to-door service, or thousand-dollar dinners — taxpayers are never being asked about this, are completely unaware it’s happening. It’s a slap in the face to city employees and citizens of Atlanta.”
The AJC could not identify some of the destinations for airline tickets or the appropriateness of the meals because reporters have not yet been allowed to inspect supporting documentation which Reed was required to submit along with the statements. The city’s policy says expenses should be “properly documented and supported by physical (original) receipts.”
The charges are scanned by the program administrator and sent to the cardholders’ assistants for verification. Charges are subject to audit, the policy says.
Dickerson said Reed did not take per diem on any of his business trips, even though he was entitled to.
“This also saved taxpayers thousands in travel expenses,” Dickerson said.
Airfare for staffers, brother
Over the three-year period, Reed used his card at least 12 times to purchase airfare for someone other than himself, the records show.
In June 2015, for example, Reed used his card to book his brother, Tracy, transportation to New York through a travel agent. The dates match up with the weekend Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president on Roosevelt Island. Reed used $2,261 in donations from his Kasim Reed for Mayor account to reimburse the city for the expenses several months later. About half that bill was for a chauffeured car.
In September 2015, he bought airplane tickets to Miami for himself, current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and two members of his communications staff. At the end of the month, Reed reimbursed the city $1,791 from his campaign account.
Two months later, he then allowed taxpayers to cover $907 in airfare purchased for a junior staffer on Nov. 17, and another $817 for her to fly out of San Francisco on Nov. 19. During those three days, records show, Reed’s card was used for two Carey Executive Limo Service rides totaling $360, and a $100 ride from Easy Rider Limo Service in Half Moon Bay, Calif. The rides, like the airfare, were not reimbursed.
Anne Torres, who went on the Miami trip as Reed’s communications director and who still works in that position for Mayor Bottoms, said in an email that the travel was for “economic development” but provided no details. It’s unclear why Reed would reimburse the city for an economic development trip, or why he would need to take members of his communications staff.
Bottoms declined to be interviewed about the Miami trip, or Reed’s use of his card to purchase her airfare.
Torres did say the new mayor has her own city-issued credit card and will use it “for legitimate expenses incurred in the course of her role as Mayor.”
‘Problem cards’ have a history
Government-issued credit cards — sometimes called purchasing cards, procurement cards or simply P-cards — have a long and troubled history in Georgia, including Atlanta.
In 2012, the AJC found the Atlanta Beltline made thousands of dollars in questionable purchases, including many on city credit cards. They included pricey meals, booze and gifts.
Beltline staffers eventually reimbursed the city more than $4,000, and the scandal led to the ouster of then-Beltline CEO Brian Leary. Invest Atlanta, which oversees the Beltline and whose board at the time was chaired by Reed, suspended the agency’s credit card reimbursements in 2011 after questions arose internally about Beltline spending.
“Any time you’re dealing with public dollars, there’s a question of judgment,” a Reed spokeswoman said in 2012.
Former DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer went to prison in 2015 for felonies that included charging personal travel and vacations to her county-issued purchasing card following an AJC investigation into her spending in 2014.
DeKalb revoked P-cards from elected officials and their staffs in 2015 when Hyde and Bowers investigated public corruption there. The program was officially suspended one year later.
In 2016 alone, there were at least three cases of state officials being accused of misusing the cards to varying degrees — from a GBI official using several cards to buy $87,000 worth of personal items; to three former Georgia Tech employees being charged with fraud; to a top aide in Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office improperly using a card to buy a $471 airplane ticket.
“The ‘P’ should stand for problems,” Hyde said. “They’re problem cards.”
Apart from spending at Beltline, there is another precedent for how the city of Atlanta has handled charge card abuse in the past.
In 2007, then-Mayor Shirley Franklin’s chief operating officer Lynette Young entered into a settlement agreement to avoid ethics charges being brought against her for buying $70.50 worth of personal items with her city-issued card.
She paid back the money, and was allowed to settle because of the low dollar amount.
“The Board of Ethics has determined that the use of a city credit card to make personal purchases is a violation of … the Code of Ethics,” Young’s settlement says. “The City of Atlanta’s ranking executive officers must meet high ethical standards that set an example of proper conduct for other employees.”
Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this story.