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Make government gratuities a crime, Cobb DA says

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds wants the Georgia Legislature to put some teeth in a provision of the state Constitution that prohibits government from giving gifts to individuals without a benefit to taxpayers in return.

Reynolds said violations of the so-called gratuities clause should be criminal offenses, and the associated punishment should be clearly spelled out in statute.

“I think it’s time for the Legislature to take a long look at that gratuity clause, probably to come up with some language that is pretty specific and clear that says: ‘If you violate this, this is what happens to you.’”

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and members of Atlanta City Council violated the gratuities clause by handing out about $800,000 in year-end bonuses and contest prizes in December 2017, according to a report by an outside law firm hired by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to investigate the legality of the giveaways.

The firm found that bonuses and cash payouts awarded by the mayor, council members and Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy were inappropriate because they were given for past work performance.

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“The case law and attorney general opinions under the Gratuities Clause require bonuses to be prospective (rather than retroactive) in nature, and requires the public to receive some benefit,” says the bonuses report, which was authored Michael Coleman, former Atlanta City Attorney who is now a partner at the Thompson Hine law firm.

The Reed administration may have also violated the gratuities clause when it approved public spending on a defense attorney for Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy, who is being investigated by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission for alleged improper spending and being absent or tardy in her courtroom.

Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson cut off taxpayer money for Gundy’s defense after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News first reported on it.

Richard Hyde, chief investigator for the Balch & Bingham law firm and held similar posts for two attorneys general and the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, co-authored a 2015 report that condemned DeKalb County for improper gratuities.

The DeKalb County attorney recommended that county commissioners stop donating office funds to charities after an investigative report by Hyde and former Attorney General Mike Bowers questioned more than $537,000 in government expenses. Some of that money went for donations to organizations such as Park Pride, the DeKalb Historical Society, the International School Foundation and the DeKalb Library Foundation.

Hyde said the idea that the government should not hand out gifts is almost as old as the state, dating to 1795. He said that despite its age, the gratuities clause is still poorly understood by public officials.

“It needs to be a delineated crime,” Hyde said. “Public officials need to be put on notice what it is, why it is and what is the defined punishment.

“The Legislature should take it up. It’s germane and it’s been abused for so long.”

Reynolds said he started thinking about a legislative fix after learning about the alleged Atlanta violations in the AJC and on Channel 2. Reynolds said he will probably ask the Cobb Delegation to take up the issue, and discuss it with the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

“In circumstances where gratuities have been paid … and it’s not proper, absolutely it needs to be a criminal prosecution and criminal statutes,” Reynolds said.

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