Atlanta councilwoman pays ethics fine, but lines blurred

AJC investigation: Atlanta City Council fines not settling larger issues

Atlanta City Council member Cleta Winslow just paid an ethics fine for spending $5,420 of taxpayers’ money to boost her 2009 re-election campaign.

But taxpayers also picked up the tab for nearly $29,000 more in spending that promoted Winslow’s name in the final weeks before last year’s voting, an analysis of council records shows. The payments blurred the line drawn by the city’s Ethics Code to separate city-sponsored events and campaign activities.

Winslow collected reimbursements from her city expense account for jazz musicians, a disc jockey, an inflatable bouncer, a popcorn machine and other equipment, plus $8,000 worth of barbecue and side dishes, for events Oct. 17 and 24 last year.

At issue: Should the council impose rules on how members spend their expense accounts, or should they be permitted to use the money as they see fit?

Although the city auditor has recommended spending rules and two council members paid ethics fines in 2009, the council has not set limits.

Officials discuss the topic in delicate terms. “It is a debatable issue that has really strong feelings on different sides,” council member Felicia Moore said.

Winslow said she always spends her expense money on district projects, not just in election years. Lately, she’s focused on picking up some of the key services that the city can no longer provide.

“It was very depressing down here,” she said in an interview. “Our community centers got closed. We had to have places for our kids to go. ... We didn’t have anybody to cut the grass.”

Last month, Winslow acknowledged that the city reimbursed her for $1,700 to design and print a campaign newsletter and $3,720 to distribute it door-to-door in the four days preceding the November 2009 election. She returned the money and paid a $1,500 fine under an Oct. 21 settlement approved by city’s Board of Ethics.

“My staff person sent something in for reimbursement that they shouldn’t,” Winslow said.

Ginny Looney, city ethics officer, said she considered filing additional charges in Winslow’s case but was not confident she could prove other expenses were improper. Many of the costs were associated with city-sponsored events.

Records show Winslow was reimbursed for:

● $4,200 in catering for two events in September

● $1,780 to invite constituents to an Oct. 7 “meet and greet” dinner.

● $863 for food and flyers promoting an Oct. 13 forum on streetscape improvements.

● $363 for catering an Oct. 15 meeting with senior citizens.

● $5,007 for food, music and equipment rentals for West End Remembers Day, co-sponsored by the Beltline, on Oct. 17.

● $450 for food and a speaker for an Oct. 20 grant-writing seminar for ministers in her district.

● $4,995 for barbecue and other expenses at an Oct. 24 public art dedication at Adair Park in southwest Atlanta.

Winslow said Camille Russell Love, director of the city’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, asked her to share the cost of the Oct. 24 event. But a spokesman for the agency gave a different account.

“They really didn’t ask [Winslow] to do anything,” spokesman Sharon Davis said. “She knew they were having an event in her area and she wanted to make a contribution.”

Each council member has a $28,500 annual expense account, plus any unspent funds from prior years.

All told, the city reimbursed Winslow more than $13,000 just for food and drinks in the six weeks before the election.

“I’m not ashamed to say I spoil my folks,” Winslow said. “I spoil them with food.”

Tough re-election

Winslow faced the toughest re-election campaign among council incumbents in 2009, collecting 53 percent of the vote against three opponents to avoid a runoff. Polls opened Oct. 12 last year for early voting in the municipal races.

Looney said her review of Winslow’s spending at Adair Park, at a city Bureau of Cultural Affairs dedication of a public art piece, was inconclusive.

The unveiling was clearly city business, Looney said, but it was unclear when and whether it became a campaign event.

“We gave her the benefit of the doubt that that was an official city event,” she said.

One resident said she harbored no such questions.

“Her campaign workers completely hijacked the event,” Adair Park resident Rebecca O’Mara said.

Winslow’s workers arrived well before the 1 p.m. ceremony, setting up tables and hanging a large banner bearing her name between trees. A portable barbecue smoker served up chicken, burgers, hot dogs, potato salad, baked beans, sweet tea and lemonade.

Afterward, O’Mara said, campaign workers handed out Re-Elect Cleta Winslow T-shirts and other campaign material to children in the crowd.

“None of us wanted to stay, because all of a sudden we were at a campaign rally,” she said.

O’Mara, who supported another council candidate, filed the ethics complaint a week later over a different matter — door-to-door distribution of a campaign newsletter with an insert offering rides to the polls.

The eight-page “District 4 Update,” featuring 18 photographs of Winslow and mentioning her name 31 times, listed her address and phone number at City Hall rather than her campaign headquarters.

“If this is campaign literature, this doesn’t say so anywhere on it,” O’Mara said.

Winslow’s campaign paid more than $5,000 to print the newsletter, but the city of Atlanta reimbursed her $3,720 for workers in Re-Elect Cleta Winslow T-shirts to hand it out.

The city’s Code of Ethics prohibits the use of city property or resources for political purposes.

The same canvassers had walked the streets of District 4 for the previous three weeks, picking up trash, handing out flyers promoting other events and wearing different T-shirts bearing her name and the city’s. Winslow said the city also paid for those T-shirts, which are intended to identify wearers to residents and police in high-crime areas.

The T-shirts also remind constituents that Winslow is fulfilling her obligations to them, she said.

“Because when we’re out cleaning up, we’re letting people know who’s doing the cleaning up in that area,” she said. “Yeah, I wanted them to know.”

Winslow assured the ethics office in November 2009 that the city had not paid for her political material, submitting the canceled check with which her campaign paid for design work on the District 4 newsletter.

A few weeks earlier, records show, she asked the city to reimburse $835 for the design work.

Looney said she warned Winslow before closing the ethics case that she should clearly distinguish between city events and political activity.

“I told her, ‘I don’t think it’s a good practice, I think it’s very confusing, and I think in the future you need to separate out these two types of events,’ ” Looney said.

Looney had cautioned Winslow in 2006 against handing out city-funded newsletters as campaign literature. Winslow agreed to cease similar activity.

Spending guidelines and training recommended by City Auditor Leslie Ward could have clarified whether the city should have reimbursed Winslow for her expenses.

In March 2009, Ward made several recommendations to the council: set guidelines for spending from members’ expense accounts; require a statement of the public purpose of that spending; bar members from carrying unspent funds from one year to another; and provide training on city procurement policies. Last February, Ward reminded the council it had yet to act on those recommendations.

The council asked Ward to audit their expense accounts after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2008 that several members spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire relatives and pay campaign-related expenses. Members Ceasar Mitchell, now council president, and Kwanza Hall later paid nearly $27,000 in fines and restitution to settle investigations by the ethics board.

The council has adopted a couple other fixes that Ward suggested — including setting up separate accounts for specific projects — but not the meatier standards.

“We took the low-hanging fruit, those things we could all readily agree on,” said Moore, chair of the Committee on Council.