Taxpayers will spend at least $90,000 on tuition and salary so Atlanta’s chief financial officer can complete a six-week business management training program at Harvard University.
When CFO Jim Beard returns to the city next month, he’ll have a prestigious new line on his resume.
But he won’t have a job.
Beard’s resignation was one of at least two accepted by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms following a demand earlier this month for resignation letters from the roughly 30 people who make up her Cabinet.
But city officials have closely guarded the circumstances surrounding Beard’s termination for the past couple of weeks, and have made conflicting statements about the job status of the man who oversaw the city’s more than half-billion dollar budget for the past seven years.
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It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon — two weeks after the city accepted his resignation — that City Council members learned Beard continues to earn his $274,000 salary until May 18, the day after the Harvard program ends. The council also learned Wednesday that the city paid $60,000 toward his tuition last July.
“So basically we’re paying for another city to reap the benefits of this Harvard business program — that’s great!” said Sara Henderson, executive director of the government watchdog group, Common Cause Georgia.
City officials still haven’t fully explained why taxpayers should keep the CFO on the payroll, except to say that he is still a “resource” they can use while he is in Massachusetts.
This week, media reports revealed potentially illegal bonuses, as high as $15,000, that were doled out to select city employees by the Reed administration — along with about $67,000 in raffle and contest prize money awarded during an “executive holiday party” in December. Beard was one of five senior officials who were given $15,000.
The confusion surrounding Beard has only added to the turmoil inside a City Hall recently bombarded by crisis and scandal, including a state investigation into alleged open records violations; a cyber attack that left some departments unable to function; reports of inappropriate credit card purchases; and a subpoena in the federal corruption probe for information about former Mayor Kasim Reed and Deputy Chief of Staff Katrina Taylor Parks.
Prohibited from restricted areas
Amid the upheaval, Bottoms on April 9 instructed her Cabinet to write resignation letters and said she would soon decide the fate of the city’s highest ranking employees.
The next day a city spokesperson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Beard no longer worked for the city after being questioned about why the CFO’s name wasn’t on a list of cabinet officials asked to resign.
On April 11, Interim Human Resources Director Sherri Thompson Dickerson attempted to send Beard a letter stating that Bottoms had accepted his resignation, that he would continue earning his salary until the Harvard training ended, but he was to stay out of city offices.
“During this period, you are prohibited from entering City of Atlanta restricted areas unless otherwise directed,” the letter said.
But the letter was sent to the wrong email address. A city spokesman said a hard copy was also mailed to Beard’s home, but he would have already been at the Harvard program, which began on April 2.
Beard did not respond to email, phone and text messages from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Beard still ‘a resource’
Despite the letter, Taylor Parks, who took medical leave just before the subpoena naming her was released to the AJC, told a group of City Council committee chairs on April 17 that Beard was still employed with the city. She did not explain earlier statements about Beard no longer working for the city.
“Mr. Beard is still employed with the City of Atlanta,” Bottoms said in an interview with the AJC on April 19. “But as I have said as it relates to all of the resignations I’ve asked for, I have been very careful not to give specifics on any transition with any one person one way or another.”
Bottoms did not mention in the interview that she had accepted Beard’s resignation, or that he had been forbidden from entering restricted areas.
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It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon, at a meeting of the City Council’s Finance/Executive Committee, that Chief of Staff Marva Lewis described Beard’s imminent separation from the city.
“Do we have a CFO right now?” asked Councilman Andre Dickens.
“Jim Beard is our current CFO,” Lewis said.
The council’s questions then shifted back to the bonuses and contest awards handed out by the Reed administration. Several minutes later, Councilwoman Jennifer Ide came back to Beard.
“I still have a little fuzziness in my head about who our CFO is and how long he will be our CFO,” Ide said. “I’m reading things in the paper that indicate that either Mr. Beard has resigned or will resign.”
That was when Lewis disclosed that Beard’s last day would be May 18. After further questioning, Lewis said the city had received open records requests for documents showing a city payment for the Harvard course.
Officials had located a $60,000 payment made last year, just an hour before the meeting, Lewis said.
“He is still available as a resource,” Lewis told the committee. “We still work with him on several things, including the budget. He is not physically here (but) Jim is technically still a resource for the city in the CFO capacity.”
Reed: City paid tuition for ‘strong performance’
The seven-week Harvard course costs $80,000, but the Ivy League institution provided Beard with a $20,000 scholarship because he was a municipal employee.
The city wired $60,000 to Harvard Business School on July 27.
When former Mayor Reed decided the city would pay for Beard’s management training last fall, the length of the CFO’s tenure was even more uncertain because a crowded field of mayoral candidates were vying for the city’s top job. Reed threw his support behind Bottoms, who narrowly won a Dec. 5 runoff against Mary Norwood.
In an email statement to the AJC, Reed said he approved spending public money for Beard’s training because the CFO guided the city “through seven balanced budgets with no tax increases, nine consecutive credit rating upgrades, AA+ credit ratings (from all three agencies) and $200 million in cash reserves.”
Reed also said Beard was accepted into the program in August 2017, but deferred to this year “because of the large number of projects that demanded his attention.”
After the election, Bottoms kept almost all of Reed’s Cabinet in place for her first 100 days, before asking for the resignation letters. But had another mayoral candidate succeeded, Beard might not even have been CFO when the Harvard training began.
“Based upon his strong performance, I believed that he would have a fair opportunity to continue in his role as CFO,” Reed said in the statement. “Finally, unlike many people during the last election cycle, I always had high confidence that Mayor Bottoms would prevail in the mayoral contest.
“Despite this, I understand that all new leaders have a right to evaluate and select their own team. It appears Mayor Bottoms is going through that process in a deliberate fashion.”
Henderson, of Common Cause Georgia, said Reed should not have approved paying for the program without knowing Beard would be retained as the city’s CFO.
“It looks like another example of Mayor Reed spending money to spend money,” Henderson said.
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