7 eye-opening investigations in Atlanta

Without The Atlanta Journal-Constitution you might not know what’s really going on in your community.

In 2018, our journalists exposed corruption at City Hall, uncovered issues with state licensing boards and detailed how billions of dollars might go toward redevelopment in downtown Atlanta.

Real journalism is hard work, and subscribers found these compelling, exclusive investigations only in the AJC.

Examining meth’s more lethal return 

Journalist Joshua Sharpe was curious about increased reports of drug-related activity and started asking questions at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Through many months of poring over documents and scheduling interviews, what Sharpe found was startling—there had been a huge spike in meth-related deaths in recent years. Like many, he'd assumed the meth epidemic was over and the current dangerous drug of choice was opioids.

When he consulted with law enforcement, they told him authorities had gotten so good at cracking down on domestic meth labs, they'd all but wiped out U.S. production. But that created a void in fulfilling the ongoing demand for meth—a void that was filled by Mexican drug cartels.

"Cartels are much better at making it than American meth cookers ever were," Sharpe said. "Because they make more of it, and it's cheaper and stronger than ever, that's contributed to the recent spike in deaths."

Sharpe's investigative story centers on an Atlanta-area woman who got hooked on meth as an offset of opioids, which she became addicted to after a high school sports injury.

Sharpe said he was motivated to share her journey and report the story because "everywhere you look, people you see out in public are suffering."

"I don't think people ought to suffer alone," he said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Evidence included racist rant

While investigating a discrimination lawsuit brought by former Buford school system paraprofessional Mary Ingram against the superintendent, AJC legal affairs reporter Bill Rankin discovered an unusual piece of evidence in the case.

It was an audio recording of a racist rant purported to be by Superintendent Geye Hamby. In the recording, which had been entered as evidence of Hamby's racist leanings, and which likely contributed to Ingram's dismissal, Hamby was heard uttering repeated racist slurs when referring to a construction work crew.

Rankin was told by Ingram's attorneys that the tape had been scientifically analyzed and determined to be authentic. Not satisfied with that explanation, Rankin did his homework. He asked numerous other people to listen to the evidence, including an audio engineer. The consensus was that the racist recording appeared to be the real deal.

However, Rankin was still concerned about credibility, feeling it could lead to dire consequences for Hamby if incorrect. Rankin unsuccessfully tried talking to him in person, then emailed Hamby and got a reply that he had been advised not to comment. The story ran the next day.

Hamby was immediately suspended and resigned shortly afterward.

Rankin's careful approach to breaking this story is reflective of his attitude toward his work in general. "I wanted to be fair to Hamby.” He added, “My mission is, to the greatest degree possible, to report unequal justice accurately."

Revealing the Gulch’s billion-dollar secrets 

The Gulch project is complicated, and AJC business reporter J. Scott Trubey is the first to admit it.

Back in 2015, he started tracking a large development in downtown Atlanta, one intended to transform an undeveloped area near Philips Arena (now State Farm Arena) called the Gulch. An urban wasteland of parking lots and train tracks, the Atlanta Hawks wanted to reshape the area into a sizable mixed-use entertainment area, similar to the new Braves complex in Cobb Country. As investigative editor Todd Duncan explained, "It's just a huge hole in downtown Atlanta right now."

It was going to be a big project—the largest private development to be built in Atlanta since Peachtree Center in the 1960s. Though the idea was attractive, the problem turned out to be how it would be financed.

A California developer bought the Gulch property, requesting nearly $2 billion in public financing. When Trubey started digging, he describes the city's reaction as opaque. "If there's anything that sparks a reporter's interest, it's secrecy," he said.

He discovered the city was quietly working with Atlanta Public Schools to support the project. It would be funded through tax revenues, partly by diverting a portion of sales taxes to the development. As more light was shed on the proposed deal, it became a controversial issue with vocal opponents who maintained the project would siphon off revenues and development from other areas.

After several failed attempts to get the measure passed, proponents finally succeeded on Nov. 5.

Trubey spent a great deal of time unraveling the complexities of the agreement. When asked about his motivation to tell the story as it evolved over several years, he said, "When there's $2 billion of public money on the table, we think the public should have a seat at that table."

School safety controversy

Arlinda Smith Broady is an education reporter for the AJC. She covers everything from the recent high school marching band racial slur incident to safety issues. Two of her 2018 stories concerned school buses—one on equipping them with seat belts and the other about cameras mounted on the buses to detect vehicles illegally passing while they are stopped.

Though the bus cameras seem like a good idea, Broady told one woman's story that calls that into question. The woman had to make a split-second decision whether to pass a bus that signaled its stop just as she came upon it. Stopping would have required her to slam on her brakes and likely get rear-ended. She didn't stop, received a citation based on the camera image and later went to court to explain the situation, but to no avail.

Broady has been a journalist for more than two decades and notes a shift in the way we think about news. "When I started out in this business, people looked to the media to tell them what was happening. Now it's reversed, people tell us what the news is."

She looks at reporting as a way of putting things in perspective, capturing the nuance and complexity of what's happening while striving to be as accurate as possible. While she notes the media often report about bad things that happen, it's because journalism is about reporting the unexpected, which represents just a small fraction of what's going on.

"It's important that we don't put ourselves in the story. We must remain unbiased observers," Broady said. And while sometimes her job is hard—she cites school shootings as something she has a strong emotional reaction to—journalism is her passion. "I have the greatest job," she said. "I learn something new every day."

Exposing misconduct by massage therapists 

A slew of client complaints about sexual misconduct by Atlanta-area massage therapists drew the attention of AJC senior investigative editor Lois Norder and investigative reporter Johnny Edwards.

That licensed masseuses were molesting their clients was bad enough. But even worse, when complaints were made to the state licensing board, rarely was any action taken. In almost every case, the offender kept the license and suffered no consequences. Even in situations where the therapist was fired, those individuals were free to get jobs doing the same thing elsewhere.

And massage therapists weren't the only ones sliding by. In another 2018 investigative report, Edwards revealed that the state regulatory nursing board routinely keeps drug-addicted nurses' identities secret. And those who report to work under the influence, many of them having stolen the drugs from the medical facilities in which they work, are allowed second, third and even fourth chances.

This poses a risk to the public, whether in a hospital setting, where it's documented that at least one addicted nurse gave a patient the wrong medication, or in a home health environment, where addict caregivers can steal patient medications.

In both professions, revoking licenses can involve a lengthy legal process, and at least in the case of the massage therapist licensing board, it doesn't appear to have the staff or the leverage it needs to act effectively.

Edwards strongly believes in delivering the facts in a way the average person can understand. "There are real people in these stories—people who have been harmed," he said. "We're giving people a voice who wouldn't otherwise have one."

Investigating money trail at Atlanta City Hall 

For senior AJC investigative editor Ken Foskett, the most surprising thing he discovered during his team’s reporting of the financial irregularities in former then-Mayor Kasim Reed's administration was the lack of internal controls. Those policies govern how money is spent, and what you are—and aren't—allowed to do with public funds.

The deeper reporters working on this story dug, the more problems came to the surface. Millions in payments to a law firm where Reed had previously worked. Violations of the Georgia Open Records Act, which guarantees public access to government records. Questionable use of government-issued purchasing cards. And about $800,000 paid in bonuses and prizes to employees just before Reed left office, which many believe was a violation of the city Code of Ordinances.

So far, about half a dozen people have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a wide-ranging and ongoing criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in Atlanta.

"The public service aspect of investigative journalism is compelling for me," Foskett said. "There's great potential for constructive impact. The journalists I work with believe this is a public service—making sure the government spends tax dollars according to the law."

Digging deeper into candidates’ business deals 

It was hard to be a Georgian and not be swept up in the dramatic showdown between political rivals Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, both of whom were vying for the job of governor in the 2018 election cycle.

Alan Judd, an AJC investigative reporter, started tracking both candidates early on by looking at their personal business dealings. He discovered neither was particularly transparent.

Abrams, on the one hand, had set up two nonprofit foundations that she used to promote her candidacy, although according to the laws governing those organizations, she was not obligated to disclose where their funds came from.

Kemp, on the other hand, had gotten swept up in questionable dealings with a grain processing company of which he was part owner—in one instance, using an insurance settlement to pay off a lender instead of farmers whose grain was destroyed in a fire. The Georgia Department of Agriculture described that as a possible felony.

Judd maintains that understanding how political candidates conduct themselves in private business can illuminate what their behavior will be like in public office.

Although Kemp also oversaw the state election process in which he was a candidate, which opened him up to accusations of election fixing, Abrams eventually conceded the close race to him.

A true journalist, Judd makes every effort to report the truth without favoritism. "If I'm covering a political race," he said, "I don't usually cast a vote for it."

Local journalism matters 

It’s been a significant year for local journalism. The AJC’s journalists remain committed to shedding light on wrongdoing, informing citizens, reporting all sides of complex issues and covering local news. Only the AJC can do this vital work — and only because of the support of subscribers.

And after such an eye-opening year, investigative reporter Johnny Edwards said it best.

“We are driven by a cause that makes the world a better place in some way,” he said.

RELATED: Read 10 stories that defined 2018 in Atlanta