One must remember that the DeKalb County corruption scandal a few years ago started with a grease trap.
In 2011, a fats, oil and grease inspector fessed up to taking kickbacks from restaurant owners. Prosecutors suspected there was more to it and investigated. They ended up convicting CEO Burrell Ellis on unrelated charges that resulted from an investigation that pivoted and looked into election fundraising.
That conviction was later overturned after Ellis did a prison stint and the case was dropped.
Well, we’re back in the fats, oil and grease, this time in Atlanta, where the feds are widening their investigation. In a subpoena served at City Hall this month, investigators are looking into an oily deal with an outfit that promised to turn restaurant waste into fuel.
And this case seems to be going off onto other tangents, as did the DeKalb case. Once again, it is zeroing in on the top dog: former Mayor Kasim Reed.
After more than two years of sleuthing, federal investigators are looking at Hizzoner. In a subpoena, prosecutors are seeking Reed’s P-card (city credit card) receipts, as well as info about the convoluted manner in which he engineered to have a government-connected charity pay off part of the tab for an expensive overseas trip.
The fact that prosecutors would aim at the (former) mayor’s office is not surprising.
Two weeks ago, U.S. Attorney BJay Pak tipped his hand after releasing the corruption indictment of Mitzi Bickers, a political consultant who helped get Reed elected.
“The ethics and culture of an organization start from the top,” Pak told the media. “You set the right tone, so when you have repeated instances of corruption, it’s time to look at that culture.”
Understandably, that means looking at Reed. What’s puzzling, though, is after all this time, is this all the feds have on him?
Reed was prolific at spending money on travel and luxury. His P-card expenditures show that the former chief exec had Trumpian tastes. That he spent more than $300,000 in the past three years, mostly on airfare, hotels, restaurants and limo service. He even paid back $12,000 when The AJC and Channel 2 Action News requested those records this year.
He and his top staff also flew to South Africa last year, with several of his team paying for comfy $10K-and-up business class seats. After a public outcry, Reed promised to repay $40,000 of the excursion costs with non-governmental money. And it seems he did, funneling money he had earlier declined from his own raises through a nonprofit set up with Invest Atlanta.
It’s clear that Reed’s spending was lavish ($150,000 last year alone). But it is yet to be seen whether any of it crossed the legal line. It just seems peculiar that after two-plus years of digging, the feds only seem to have stuff they saw in the newspaper and on TV (that is, the stories we had on the P-cards and South Africa).
Reed has long professed his innocence. He has said he dreamed of being Atlanta’s mayor ever since he was a lad in knickerbockers on the southwest side and would not mess it up for something grubby like graft. I’ve said before that it would be surprising that Reed would delve into petty illegalities when a huge payoff loomed — a lawyer leaving the mayor’s office is worth $500,000 a year on the open market.
Why risk it all?
That’s a good question. But one could ask the same about Adam Smith — the Yale, Morehouse and Georgetown-educated Atlanta procurement director who seemed to have it all, but pleaded guilty to taking cash ($1,000 a pop) in a restaurant bathroom.
On April 5, the feds sent a letter to Smith, telling him to start serving his 27-month sentence. It seems prosecutors had finished getting all they could from him.
And the dominoes started falling.
On April 3, the feds issued a subpoena for info about deputy chief of staff Katrina Taylor Parks. Among other things, investigators want to know about her relationship with a shady exec who ran FOGFuels (as in fat, oil, grease), a company that mysteriously got a no-bid contract with the city in 2012. The head of that company is an admitted flim-flam man set to go away to prison.
That contract was exposed six years ago by Matthew Cardinale, a quirky and effective gadfly who wrote about it extensively in his Atlanta Progressive News.
On April 5 (the day Smith was getting sent away), the indictment of Bickers was made public. Bickers, who worked for the city, was accused, among other things, of conspiracy to take up to $2 million to help a couple of contractors get millions more in city work.
But, another oddity here — we’ve known since last year that Bickers got vast amounts of money from longtime city contractor E.R. Mitchell, who now is in prison. So why wasn’t she indicted months ago, unless prosecutors were sweating her for information?
Did they get anything from her? Who knows? Maybe she told them to read The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
On April 6, the day after Bickers’ trouble, the feds came looking for Reed’s P-Card info.
The following Monday, the same day feds were sending away a fellow who threw a rock through E.R. Mitchell’s window, current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was asking for resignations from her top staff, most of them holdovers from Reed’s administration.
She is looking for a new start.
I called City Council President Felicia Moore, who as a councilwoman in 2012 smelled a rat with the no-bid FOGFuels contract and waged a losing battle to kill it.
“That was a nasty piece of stuff they were pushing,” Moore said of the contract.
Moore believes the oil and grease caper is bubbling up now because “people are filing into the feds’ office, offering up things they suspected were wrong.”
“I think they’re heating it up, trying to get to get people to turn,” she said. “I hope they keep turning over rocks.”
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