Purchase of luxury SUV for Atlanta Mayor Bottoms bypassed City Council

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The two luxury GMC Denalis used to chauffeur Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms were purchased for a combined $175,000. They were purchased without the apparent authorization of Atlanta City Council.

The two luxury GMC Denalis used to chauffeur Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms around town were purchased for a combined $175,000 without the apparent authorization of Atlanta City Council, who had designated the money for police cars used by patrol officers and detectives.

City Council approved $2.6 million for 91 new police vehicles in the summer of 2017. The two Denalis were not on the list of vehicles to be purchased in the approved ordinance.

But the city finance department nevertheless took money for the Denalis from those funds after Bottoms was sworn into office in January, 2018.

Bottoms said she never asked for the SUVs. “I was told they needed to order new cars, but I wasn’t mayor then,” she said.

The Denalis came equipped with advanced communications systems, blue emergency lights and included the “ultimate package”: 22-inch rims, a sculpted chrome grille, perforated leather seats and premium floor mats, according to purchasing documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Capt. David Jones, the commander of the team of officers assigned to protect the mayor, ordered the $87,500 vehicles.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, who was a council member in 2017, said the purchase wasn’t authorized because the Denalis were not included with those approved by the council.

“You can’t ask the council to approve a list of vehicles and then turn around and use the money for something else,” Moore said. She said the purchase subverted the council’s check on the executive branch.

A spokesman for Bottoms said city officials didn’t have to adhere to the specific vehicles listed in legislation. The Denalis are police vehicles, purchased for the mayor’s protection.

Bottoms said she believed the vehicles were properly purchased.

“But I haven’t gone into any details with that,” she said.

Fraud expert Victor Hartman said the manner in which the SUVs were purchased likely violated the city’s charter, which restricts discretionary equipment purchases by the mayor’s office to less than $100,000.

Hartman said he doesn’t consider the vehicles inappropriate for the mayor, but the purchase violated the charter because the vehicles were contained on a single invoice.

“It’s not good governance and lacks transparency,” said Hartman, an Atlanta attorney and author of the book The Honest Truth about Fraud.

Spending significant amounts of money without council authorization is a pattern that occurred under Mayor Kasim Reed — who handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to his executive staff; spent extravagantly on travel accommodations with his city-issued credit card; and used money designated for charity to pay for his family's health insurance after he left office.

‘Project Hoopty’

For the better part of a decade, the luxury sport utility vehicles used to transport the city’s top leader have stirred controversy. To some, they are a symbol of excess and arrogance. Others view them as an expense fitting for the office’s stature.

A year after former Mayor Kasim Reed was elected, the city upgraded the mayoral transport vehicles to luxury SUVs from the Ford Tauruses that ferried around Reed’s predecessor, Shirley Franklin.

Four years later, however, Reed’s administration replaced the mayor’s SUV fleet without going to the council as he started his second term.

In a 2015 email, then Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard told an officer on the executive protection unit that the city's finance department supported the purchase — with one exception. A proposal to repaint the brand new vehicles at a price of about $5,000 apiece seemed like an unnecessary expense that "could raise the interest of the media," Beard said.

The purchase eventually required finance department officials to override financial controls for what Beard dubbed in emails as “Project Hoopty.”

Reed's Denalis came equipped with blue lights and sirens, which became controversial after a Channel 2 Action News investigation found Reed's security detail used them for routine travel — which is illegal.

William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs and a frequent critic of Reed, said the vehicles symbolized the belief that the mayor was “beyond the rules and above the law.”

‘I need this handled today’

In December, 2017, Police Chief Erika Shields asked Beard in an email for assistance in replacing one of the Denalis in the mayor's fleet because of high mileage. It was two days after the mayoral election in which Bottoms defeated Mary Norwood.

From that point on, Jones, the commander of the mayor’s executive protection unit, took charge of the request, emails show. Soon after, the department decided that two SUVs were needed.

“The vendor located two SUV Denalis (that) Capt. Jones requested for the new administration,” the city’s fleet manager wrote in an email to Beard on Dec. 13, 2017.

Beard wrote back two days later: “I need this handled today.”

Beard’s attorney, Scott R. Grubman, declined to answer a question about how the purchase became an urgent matter.

“This was a purchase clearly requested by and authorized by the APD Chief. Any questions should be directed to Chief Shields,” Grubman said.

Atlanta Police did not respond to AJC questions, or to a request to make Shields and Jones available for interviews.

A database of city expenditures shows that the city paid Wamar Technologies, a local company that specializes in defense and security, roughly $175,000 for the two SUVs on Feb. 9, 2018.

Our reporting:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered an invoice for the two, $87,500 Denalis that police use to transport the mayor while reviewing thousands of documents produced for federal prosecutors in response to a subpoena seeking former Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard’s emails. It does not appear that the Denalis purchases are part of the ongoing federal investigation of City Hall corruption. The AJC then reviewed other records — including ordinances, emails, a lawsuit and related purchasing documents — to produce this story.