Since 2015, former Mayor Kasim Reed has used more than $50,000 from his personal and campaign bank accounts to repay taxpayers for charges he made on his city-issued credit card.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News recently obtained documentation of a previously unknown $15,631 check Reed wrote to the city from his campaign account in February 2015, repaying 13 charges made from the previous year.
That’s on top of about $35,000 in repayments that the media companies had already reported.
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Reed said in a statement issued through a spokesman that the $15,621 check was for “a collection of legitimate and appropriate business expenditures that were incurred in the course of his role as Mayor.”
“Even though these expenses represented appropriate expenditures under the City guidelines, Mayor Reed decided to go well beyond what is required and often reimbursed the City for legitimate expenses with personal or campaigns funds to reduce the burden to taxpayers,” Reed’s statement said.
Reed’s spokesman sent the AJC and Channel 2 a nearly identical statement in March, when Reed reimbursed the city $12,000 just days before his 2015-17 credit card statements were released.
Card holder agreements for city-issued cards state that they “shall be used for business purposes only.”
“All personal purchases are … prohibited.” The word “prohibited” is underlined.
The AJC and Channel 2 requested a copy of Reed’s agreement in March, but city officials have not been able to locate it. That agreement, along with Reed’s credit card statements, were subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office after the AJC and Channel 2 reported that Reed charged about $300,000 on his card from 2015-17.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an agreement when she received her card, a city spokeswoman said.
Jessica Cino, a law professor at Georgia State University and a former federal prosecutor, said the reimbursements don’t change the fact that some of the charges may have been an improper use of taxpayer funds.
“Just because you give the money back, that doesn’t make it OK,” Cino said.
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Cino also said using a taxpayer resource, such as a government credit card, for personal or political purposes represents a “zero-percent interest loan” made by the city to the former mayor.
In the case of the 2015 repayment, nine of the 13 expenses were more than eight months old, dating to the first half of 2014.
“The city’s not in the business of being a bank,” Cino said. “It seems like there’s an ongoing pattern of basically using a card to do some extravagant travel, dinners, and airfare … and then you pay it back at your leisure. There’s no 20-percent interest rate like the rest of us have.
“It’s a problem.”
Timing of repayment
A Feb. 6, 2014, memo sent to the city’s accounting department describes Reed’s 2014 expenses in broad terms: airfare for Howard University board meetings; airfare for the Howard University commencement; airfare and meal for the Howard University presidential search; airfare to China for a world economic forum; and airfare to Rome, Italy for the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates.
Reed attended Howard University. He also made a failed bid to bring the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit to Atlanta.
Reed’s 2015 campaign finance report says the repayment was related to the 2013 general election. A spokesman for Reed said that notation was a mistake and “the campaign will correct the administrative error describing the expenditure.”
At the time Reed repaid taxpayers, the Georgia General Assembly was enacting legislation that made improper use of government-issued cards a crime.
The legislation followed reporting by the AJC and Channel 2 in 2014 about rampant abuse of such cards in DeKalb County. Former county commissioner Elaine Boyer went to prison for charging vacations and other expenses to her county card, and for taking kickbacks from a consultant.
Rick Thompson, who served as the state ethics commission secretary in the 2000s, said it is legal for elected officials to use campaign funds to pay for official public duties or to run their office. Thompson, who now owns RTA Strategy, which provides disclosure services to candidates, said the practice can insulate officials from being accused of taking junkets.
But Cino said there’s no “rhyme or reason” for the expenses Reed decided to pay back and those that were not.
The AJC and Channel 2 reported this week that Reed paid back only about one-third of charge card expenses made on his behalf by police officer bodyguards, for things like fast food and dry cleaning. Cino also said it’s against the law to buy personal items on a city-issued credit card.
Reed’s spokesman noted that the former mayor did not take a per diem on any of his city business trips, even though he was entitled to do so. “This also saved taxpayers thousands in travel expenses,” the statement said.
But Cino asked: Who needs a per diem when you have the city’s credit card?
“There’s a meal here at Joe’s Stone Crab that’s $334,” Cino said. “That’s a little more than a per diem.”