Report: Screening process bypassed with Atlanta mayor’s campaign hires

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday announced that the city has reached its goal of raising $50 million to provide 550 homes for the city’s homeless population. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday announced that the city has reached its goal of raising $50 million to provide 550 homes for the city’s homeless population. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

An internal investigation into several of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign workers who were hired for city jobs found they weren’t properly screened, were paid from restricted funds with no relationship to their jobs and were compensated for a pay period that occurred before they submitted job applications.

The report from the city's auditor and ethics offices confirms most the findings of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published in March, which detailed how the new administration circumvented normal city hiring processes and broke with longstanding political practice by charging taxpayers for transition work her campaign staff performed before she took office on Jan. 2, 2018.

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But Monday's report did not make a determination about whether laws were broken — the primary concern of the City Council, which requested the probe in a March resolution passed days after the AJC report. The resolution asked the auditor and ethics office to ascertain whether the personnel transactions violated city code, state law, the state constitution or Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

The report intentionally avoids reaching conclusions about those legalities, citing concerns voiced by the Mayor Bottoms, who vetoed the council resolution and argued that it violated a provision in the city’s charter by authorizing the auditor to hire outside attorneys.

“Due to the Mayor’s concern, the ethics officer and city auditor agreed to conduct the investigation without seeking legal advice or drawing (legal) conclusions,” the report says.

Investigators did not attempt to interview Bottoms or former Mayor Kasim Reed.

“How do you do a credible investigation without talking to the principles involved?” asked Richard Hyde, chief investigator for the Balch & Bingham law firm who held similar posts for two Georgia attorneys general and the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission. “This thing is replete with gaps in investigative technique.

City Auditor Amanda Noble said that the current and former mayors weren’t interviewed because the investigation was focused on the city’s policies and procedures.

“We did not seek to interview the current or former mayors because nothing came up during our investigation that required their clarifications,” Noble said.

Councilman Howard Shook, who sponsored the council’s resolution calling for the investigation, said the report effectively described the various ways hiring procedures weren’t followed.

“The report found what everyone guessed it would, and, for the most part, had already been published,” Shook said.

A spokesperson for Bottoms called the findings contradictory. He pointed to a statement from the report that said the hiring process for Bottoms’ transition team was inconsistent with city procedures, and another that said the city has no formal policies or procedures for hiring transition staff.

Campaign workers paid by city before being hired

The AJC article found that six of Bottoms' campaign staffers were issued checks through the city's payroll system for the last two weeks of December 2017 — before they received job offers from the new administration.

Noble said that former interim Human Resources Commissioner Angela Addision processed those payments. But Noble acknowledged that her staff didn’t ask Addision if anyone ordered her to make the payments.

“At some level it’s the commissioner’s responsibility to tell people no,” Noble said.

The AJC article also revealed that Bottoms’ former Chief of Staff Marva Lewis — who was Bottoms’ campaign manager — was initially paid $22,500 out of federally regulated airport funds.

The mayor’s office reimbursed the airport within days of the AJC raising questions about the source of Lewis’ payments.

“We were unable to confirm who authorized the airport (payments), but interviews with human resources staff indicate that the actions were directed by the former human resources commissioner,” the report says.

Yvonne Yancy, Human Resources Commissioner under Reed, left the city a week before the city processed the payment to Lewis on Jan. 10, 2018, using airport funds.

Former Atlanta Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy
Former Atlanta Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy

In a statement on Monday, Yancy said exhibits in the auditor’s report clearly show Bottoms had knowledge and involvement in the payments.

One of the exhibits is a handwritten note on Bottoms’ stationary listing campaign staff and their desired salaries.

“I have provided emails and documentation showing that my only engagement with these (job) candidates was to send them the application materials, as is customary,” Yancy said. “Again, I was not in the role when the vast majority of these decisions were made and implemented.

“This pattern of deflection is unethical and damaging to me personally and deeply unfair to the residents of the City of Atlanta.”

In a letter to the ethics office dated August 2, Yancy’s attorney, William H. Thomas, wrote that his client wouldn’t participate in the investigation because it would not include an interview with the mayor.

“Ms. Yancy is amenable to being interviewed in any investigation conducted by any outside law enforcement agency, or entity that does not on the front end preclude the interview of individuals who undisputedly have knowledge of the facts you are investigating,” wrote Thomas, a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor.

Thomas also suggested that Bottoms’ campaign hires may be part of the federal City Hall corruption investigation.

A hand-written note, on then Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms’ stationary, listing the workers from her mayoral campaign to be hired by the city and listing the desired salary for each.
A hand-written note, on then Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms’ stationary, listing the workers from her mayoral campaign to be hired by the city and listing the desired salary for each.

Positions matched desired salary, not duties

The report says that only three personnel files of the eight campaign staff members hired by the city contain signed offer letters, and that campaign staffers were placed in open positions that matched a desired salary but not their duties.

“The files contained no documentation to indicate that candidates were aligned to position requirements,” the report says.

Charlie Stadtlander, a former senior advisor to Bottoms’ campaign, told the AJC earlier this year that he turned down a so-called “place-holder job” because of legal and ethical concerns. Stadtlander also said he reported his concerns to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“It’s bizarre that the city expects the public to believe that a former human resources department head took it upon herself to (hire the campaign workers) without some one above her directing her,” Stadtlander said.

Monday’s report revealed the improper use of restricted funds wasn’t limited to the airport.

Shortly after Bottoms took office, solid waste funds were used to retroactively pay a campaign worker, who was given a job title in the Public Works Department. Solid waste is a division of the Public Works, and those funds can only be used for collection and disposal because city residents are charged fees for that service.

“According to staff within Public Works, the employee never worked in that department,” the report says.

The report says the mayor’s office should reimburse $2,300 to the solid waste fund. Councilman Dustin Hillis introduced legislation to pay back the fund at Monday's council meeting.