Bill Torpy at Large: Hizzoner reams the public in response to probe

Mayor Kasim Reed stands at the podium and expresses his concerns about the City Hall bribery case before releasing 1.4 million documents pertaining to that case in Atlanta on Thursday, February 9, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Mayor Kasim Reed stands at the podium and expresses his concerns about the City Hall bribery case before releasing 1.4 million documents pertaining to that case in Atlanta on Thursday, February 9, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

In the realm of political theater, Mayor Kasim Reed's press conference Thursday was a doozy. And by doozy, I mean a stick in the eye to anyone who wants to see what's going on at City Hall.

There’s a federal investigation looking into bribery in exchange for city contracts and that probe is widening.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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There's at least $1 million in admitted bribes. So far. Two contractors have had that hang-dog look while appearing before a judge. Again, so far. Dead rats were dropped on a snitch's doorstep. And the mayor's campaign guru, a key person who helped him win a tight election — and then was rewarded with a city job — is being investigated as being a key player in this mess.

So, with all of that going down, reporters have clamored to get their hands on records to shine a bit of light on what is happening.

For a while, the city stonewalled and would not release the records.

Then it decided to go with another approach — back up a dump truck and just unload those documents on the truth-seekers. Actually, the records would fill up more than one dump truck.

The city released some 1,476,000 crisp sheets of paper tightly packed into 400-plus boxes, perhaps 3,600 pages in each box.

Have at it, folks!

You could say the public got reamed — 2,950 times if you use the standard 500-sheets per ream measure.

Hizzoner explained that this serial reaming was “all about transparency.”

“I wasn’t going to have you question my commitment to sunshine,” he said, standing in front of a wall of boxes as part of his photo op.

By “sunshine” he meant the Georgia Open Records Act.

By “commitment to” he meant the 1.476 million pages squeezed into boxes in no particular order.

“We don’t want you to feel we were doing a data document dump,” he said, referring to what anyone with a tenuous grasp of reality saw as exactly that. “We’ll have someone here who can help you find what you need to find.”

In essence, there were a few document concierges on hand, some who even had law degrees. They were pleasant enough when shrugging in response to questions.

AJC business reporter Scott Trubey walks us through the room where the 1.4 million pages released in the Atlanta city hall bribery case are being held. What is he finding? A lot of blank pages.

After a while, people digging through the boxes were blurting out that some were filled with empty paper. Lots of boxes, in fact. No, this wasn’t an attempt to deceive or obfuscate, explained a concierge. The 3,600 empty pages in a full box were simply the end of a spreadsheet and they had to print it all out.

Office Depot was the big winner on this day.

The Mayor explained that the city had to release the documents on dead tree product because sensitive information had to be redacted — stuff like Social Security numbers and other personal info that could be used for fraud.

I tried to press The Mayor on the fact that his teams could have simultaneously created electronic files while printing them. That could have made finding information infinity more searchable.

Multiple layers of multiple rows of boxes of documents pertaining to the City Hall bribery case were released to the press and public in Atlanta on Thursday, February 9, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

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Actually, many documents originally were electronic files before they were printed and boxed.

The mayor said the process of releasing documents would have taken much longer if they’d converted to electronic. (Which sounds like hooey because I, a technological dunce, have made e-files while printing paper copies.)

The Mayor added that there’s an election coming up and I could run the city however I wanted if I wanted to take a whack at that.

As reporters sifted through records, I ran into Esther Panitch, a lawyer who represents the wife of one of the crooked contractors. And Panitch was peeved.

“There is no reason this could not be put into a searchable form like we do (in court) every day,” she said. “I can’t even remember the last time I got paper from federal prosecutors, even when they did redactions.

“This appears to me to be an attempt to slow everyone down,” she said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News investigative teams look over some of the more than 1.4 million documents released that relate to the City Hall bribery case in Atlanta on Thursday, February 9, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Credit: Henry P. Taylor

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Credit: Henry P. Taylor

I should back up a bit. Attorney Panitch was there representing the wife of E.R. Mitchell in a divorce. E.R. is the once-respected contractor who admitted to paying someone $1 million between 2010 and 2015 to get contracts.

According to records, E.R. Mitchell got $7.3 million for emergency work during the time he was spreading cash around City Hall, including work for the 2014 Snowmagedon. We know that because a couple of years ago the AJC got electronic — and more easily searchable — data from the city.

Mitchell was the guy who had a brick thrown through his window with a written warning to "Shut Up." Dead rats were also scattered on his porch. He was business partners with Mitzi Bickers, a player on the Atlanta political scene who is a former Atlanta school board member, businesswoman, campaign consultant, pastor and get-out-the-vote maven.

In 2009, Bickers was brought into Candidate Reed’s election team to help him overcome a huge deficit in the general election and win a squeaker in the runoff.

The Channel 2 Action News team jots down notes following a question posed to Mayor Kasim Reed at City Hall in Atlanta during a press conference before the release of 1.4 million documents pertaining to the City Hall bribery case on Thursday, February 9, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

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Reed's victory meant Bickers soon added city employee to her impressive résumé, but she left a few years later when Channel 2 Action News reported that she hadn't been transparent herself in city ethics filings.

On Thursday, the city let it be known that 300 boxes of the non-data-dump belonged to Bickers.

The Mayor noted that he has never taken a bribe.

“I have poured myself into this job; I have wanted to be mayor of Atlanta since I was 13,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “Do you think I’d throw my life away for some short-term gratification?”

I believe Hizzoner on that. An unindicted lawyer/mayor is worth at least $750,000 a year on the open market, so he would have to be an absolute idiot (which he isn’t) to even think of it — especially having seen the sad fate of indicted lawyer/mayor Bill Campbell.

Still, there is a defensiveness to him that is puzzling. I get it that he doesn’t want to be remembered as a guy in charge when underlings put a For Sale sign outside City Hall.

But he doesn’t need to be known as the guy standing in front of walls of boxes and telling us it’s sunshine.