The past few months have been a whirlwind of whispering at City Hall, which culminated in a bizarre scene Wednesday when a rumor spread through the room at a City Council committee meeting that investigators were raiding the building.
At the time, council members were discussing the latest outrage connected to He Who Used to Occupy the Mayor's Office: Reports that $500,000 in bonuses and prizes were showered upon favored city workers, including obscene amounts of cash for lip-syncing and ugly Christmas sweater contests.
For two years, the feds have been investigating (and getting convictions for) bribery in the city’s contracting process. But in the past month, media reports have documented Reed thumbing his nose at the world during his last year in office by:
» Spending lavishly on dining and travel.
» Concocting a circuitous two-step to disguise the $40,000 repayment for an excursion to South Africa.
» Playing fast and loose with releasing public documents.
» And finally, the feds subpoenaing records over Reed's city credit card spending.
It turns out there was no raid Wednesday. It was just a couple of GBI agents visiting to conduct interviews or look at records in connection with an alleged violation of the state's open records law.
That is not to be confused with the FBI, who have also gotten familiar with the layout of the building the past few years.
“Anybody with an “I” in their name coming to City Hall generates excitement,” said City Council President Felicia Moore, who was excised from Reed’s Christmas card list years ago.
The latest brouhaha came about last week with reports that Reed showered his administration with more than $360,000 in bonuses as he was leaving office and doled out almost $70,000 in prizes to employees during a Christmas party.
There should be a contest to judge which is more obnoxious: Was it the $30,000 in taxpayer money awarded to three teams for a lip-sync contest? Or the $2,000-plus in prizes for the ugly sweater contest?
One of the sweaters reportedly carried the visage of defeated mayoral candidate Mary Norwood, a sight I’m sure made Hizzoner chortle with glee.
Moore called the expenditures “disgusting” and “illegal.”
At the committee meeting this week, a city lawyer was asked about the payments. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the lawyer “said she’s not sure if the bonuses were legal. She said the law department wrote an opinion to the city’s Human Resources Department, but that it can’t be retrieved because of the cyber attack.”
That would be the attack on the city’s computers that has thrown Atlanta into the Dark Ages for the past month.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
Moore said she was shocked — sort of — upon hearing the scope of the prizes and bonuses.
“When we had unauthorized payments before, I thought they’d modify their behavior,” she said.
Moore was referring to 2014, when several favored city employees got $153,000 for unused sick, vacation and compensatory time. At the time, she called for Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy and Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard, who approved the payments then, to be disciplined.
When asked about the current bonuses, Reed’s response can be summed up this way: Hey, it’s not illegal.
Reed, in a statement, said his administration had repeatedly balanced budgets, didn’t raise taxes, built a big rainy day fund and reduced crime. The bonuses, he said, were like a CEO of a successful business showing his junior execs some love.
“There is no current legislation or code language that prohibits bonuses and the executive branch is fully empowered to provide bonuses to employees at its discretion,” the statement said. “Mayor Reed consulted with the Departments of Law, Finance, and Human Resources before awarding the bonuses.”
Two of the officials who approved it, HR Commissioner Yancy and CFO Beard, were the two Moore wanted punished four years ago. The other official who supposedly gave Reed an OK was City Attorney Jeremy Berry, who is in the midst of the GBI investigation into open records.
All three of those officials each got $15,000 in bonuses.
Yancy also spread around $57,000 in bonuses to her HR underlings before leaving the city for the private sector. Beard is also leaving the city, although not until next month, when he finishes a seven-week business management course at Harvard.
Councilman Howard Shook, who represents Buckhead, said he constantly hears that government should be run like a business. “And in the private sector, bonuses are part of the landscape,” he said.
However, he added, there were no guidelines about who got what and why. The bonuses were for $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000 — nice round numbers.
I must admit the city is on better footing than it was eight years ago when Reed came in. Some of it is through his guile and smarts and strategery. But some of it is because the recession ended, demographic and economic forces were changing, and crime is down almost everywhere.
And to that point, there were a heck of a lot of people who worked hard the past eight years — cops, sanitation workers, road crews, etc.
So if the bonuses were for your imprint on the city’s success, then why did three mayoral schedulers and a speechwriter each get $5,000. Do they matter more than a beat cop working an overnight shift in a rough neighborhood?
Lt. Steve Zygaj, who heads the police union, called the prize giveaways “tasteless and classless,” and noted the $500K could be better spent in a zillion other ways.
I noted that the only cops who received bonuses — other than Police Chief Erika Shields, who returned her $10,000 this week — were members of Kasim Reed’s security detail. (Most got $5,000 each.)
Zygaj chuckled, saying, “To put up with that man? They deserve it.”