Ethics Office lacks staff, funding

In 2007, Atlanta’s Ethics Office launched an investigation into whether Councilman H. Lamar Willis used the city’s Web site, equipment and city employees for private advantage to run a scholarship foundation that he alleged was nonprofit. Doing so would violate the city’s ethics code.

It was exactly the kind of case the office was designed for when it was set up in 2002, the year Mayor Shirley Franklin took office. Franklin promised Atlantans a clean government after years under the ethically challenged administration of Mayor Bill Campbell. The Ethics Office, overseen by a volunteer Ethics Board, was supposed to be the way to do that.

The Willis case isn’t complicated, yet more than two years after the investigation was launched, the city has done nothing. The Ethics Office hasn’t ruled against Willis or exonerated him. Other cases have stalled, too.

The reason is simple: No staff. The office’s sole investigator quit and hasn’t been replaced. Then the city’s ethics officer, Ginny Looney, went out for months on extended medical leave. She hasn’t returned. The office’s budget was cut this fiscal year to $340,000, a drop of 11 percent.

Associate ethics officer Jabu Sengova is the only full-time city employee handling investigations of ethics complaints, disclosure filings by city officers, ethics training for city workers, ethics advisory opinions and any other ethics work for the entire city government — more than 3,900 people servicing a city of 540,000. She would not comment for this story except to say the office is doing the best it can.

Yet in the eighth and final year of the Franklin administration, the Ethics Office she helped establish appears to be understaffed, underfunded and under-utilized.

John Lewis Jr., a lawyer for Coca-Cola who is chairman of the city’s Ethics Board, told the AJC that the office budget cuts and some resistance to the idea of an ethics office within city government means “we are by no means at the gold standard.”

He said the work is “not at a pace that anyone of us would view as optimal.”

Franklin, who is traveling this week, did not return e-mails for comment. The mayor ran on a platform of strong ethics reform, and while in office established the board and the office. In 2005, she launched an “integrity hotline,” whereby people could call anonymously about possible corruption. City staffers say the ethics environment is much better than under Campbell, thanks in large part to the Ethics Office. But staffing and funding problems have raised concerns about how well the office can do its job.

A just-completed report commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for Progress — a group of influential civic leaders — said the city’s ethics program needs to be expanded. The case study, written by a team of academics from Georgia State University, noted that about half of the city’s workers still have not received ethics training from 2002 until now. Neither have residents who serve on city boards, commissions and Neighborhood Planning Units.

“There is a great deal that needs to be done,” said GSU professor Harvey Newman, who led the study.

Interviewed for the report, the mayor suggested in the study that the city conduct random checks of financial disclosure forms and periodic reviews of the ethics code. Such moves would take more staff.

The GSU study comes after a March report by Looney, the city ethics officer, that found that since 2003 less than 25 percent of City Council members and their staff had taken ethics training. No one in the police department, the solicitor’s office or the public defender’s office had participated. Many other departments had only partial participation. The training takes less than an hour. Looney called for mandatory ethics training for all employees, stronger ethics codes and increased enforcement. Instead, the office’s budget was cut.

Councilwoman Felicia Moore said complaints about the Ethics Office being understaffed and underfunded don’t make a lot of sense right now, since every city department is facing staff and budget cuts.

“I don’t find that they are any more understaffed and underbudget than anybody else,” she said.

Moore said some council members don’t like the Ethics Office, but most have no problem with it. She said they just approved the budget suggested by the administration.

“The council has not sought to punish them at all,” she said.

Lewis said the Ethics Office is not a “fan favorite” of many council members. He said he is worried that once Franklin leaves, a new mayor might weaken it more.

In 2006, Atlantans criticized the council when it voted to relax guidelines on free meals, gifts or tickets to events. Franklin vetoed the move. Asked about the low rate of ethics training by council members and staff, Lewis chose his words carefully.

“What we devote our time to is how we reflect what is important to us,” he said.

Lewis said the city needs to double resources for ethics, but he doesn’t see it happening.

“Increasing funding to the ethics office to achieve the goals articulated in Ginny’s report has not seemed to be a legislation goal of the council,” he said.

Meanwhile, cases like the Willis investigation languish. In the past two years, the state Department of Revenue has hit Willis with fines and back taxes totaling tens of thousands of dollars for his foundation, which was never registered with the IRS or the state. Willis still has not accounted for the money he raised, and the foundation is shut down. Sengova, the sole full-timer at the Atlanta Ethics Office, says their Willis investigation is “ongoing.”

The councilman, who is running for re-election, did not return calls for comment.

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