Torpy at Large: Mayor Big Spender vs small-minded response to scrutiny

In June of 2015, former Mayor Kasim Reed was in New York for an event with Hillary Clinton, who was announcing her presidential run.

Hizzoner rented a limo (or at least a fancy chauffeured vehicle) from Carey Executive Transportation. The rental was $1,087 and he put it on his city-issued credit card. He repaid it later with money he had lying around from his old campaign fund (which is legal).

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But a love affair was kindled. Maybe it was the style of the vehicles or the driver in black holding a door for him. Maybe it was the ease of transportation. Or perhaps the feel of fine Corinthian leather.

Whatever, for his remaining 30 months in office, Reed was hooked. Goodbye taxis, hello luxury transportation. When out of town, he rented executive cars 144 more times, averaging more than once a week, according to credit card receipts.

In all, he spent more than $28,000 for chauffeured cars — or $193 per rental, almost entirely on the city’s dime. That compares with 32 cab rides at $16 a pop.

I bring this up to follow up on a Sunday story written by my colleagues Stephen Deere and Dan Klepal, who waded through the former mayor's spending during his last three years in office. The report shows Mayor Big Spender increasingly enjoyed the largess of office as the clock ticked down on his career. In 2015, he spent $73,618. In 2016, it was $124,635. And last year, he topped out at $151,175, which exceeded his salary of $147,500.

They broke it down to four categories: flying, sleeping, eating and driving (airfare, hotels, restaurants and chauffeured car service).

“In the last year alone, Reed swiped the card in Washington, D.C.; Houston; Paris; Dubai; Chicago; Miami; Capetown, South Africa; California; Colorado; Las Vegas and Madrid. And, of course, Atlanta,” Klepal and Deere wrote. “The card covered more than $61,000 in airfare, and another $25,000 for hotels in 2017.”

That’s like movie star money. Or at least it seems that way to a Red Roof Inn guy like me.

During his two terms in office, Reed was a Big City Mayor who brought grandiosity to the ATL. And such busy politicos just don’t have time to pinch nickels. In fact, the budget for his office grew 88 percent from $18.8 million in 2010 to $35 million in 2018. The city’s budget and the cops’ budget went up 20 percent in that time.

Former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed used his city-backed credit card to charge more than $331,000 from 2015-2017. He refunded $13,400 from personal or campaign accounts while he was in office, and about $12,000 from a personal account in March. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Anne Torres, Reed’s communications director (she also holds the job for new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms), said by email: “In every instance, these costs were legitimate city expenses incurred in the course of his role as Mayor of the City of Atlanta and as a part of his Administration’s efforts to bolster economic development.”

As the axiom has it, to make money ya gotta spend it.

Atlanta is a player on the worldwide stage, an International City, for gosh sakes. So when our mayor is out wooing captains of industry and other big shots, he doesn’t want to be spotted stepping out of a ratty yellow cab. If that happens, next thing you know, those companies are playing footsie with Charlotte or Phoenix.

The granddaddy of all economic developing was the $90,000 trip last year to South Africa, where several members of Team Reed flew comfy business class, with tickets costing $10K and up. Our friends over at Channel 2 Action News tussled with City Hall because it took months to get records of the trip through an open records request.

The city hemmed and hawed, saying the records for the trip didn’t exist, although they actually did.

Atlanta’s then-Mayor Kasim Reed (left) with his press secretary Jenna Garland on September 2, 2015. (JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM)

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That all became more clear recently when a former city worker released texts from another Reed communications person, Jenna Garland, concerning a different obstruction. A year ago, Channel 2 was looking into unpaid water bills for a City Council member. Upon hearing that, Garland then texted the water department person with marching orders now known as the Reed administration game plan: "I'd be as unhelpful as possible. Drag this out as long as possible."

Needless to say, we media types were shocked. Not shocked that this happened, mind you. Just shocked that we saw evidence of what we already knew. And now the GBI is looking to see if the city broke the open records law.

I point this out because it seems very odd how the city responded recently when The AJC asked about Reed’s credit card bills.

On Jan. 26, reporters filed a request for credit card statements from 2015-17. The city said it would have them ready on Feb. 16. That seems like a long time. I think I (meaning my wife) could round up three years of our credit card receipts for the past three years in a quick check through our closet.

But the records did not come on Feb. 16. So Klepal asked again in early March, and the city said, Oh, yeah. How about March 19?

During this time, the former mayor was digging through those same records and in March reimbursed the city nearly $12,000, including, as my colleagues wrote, “a $2,300 political contribution to the Democratic Party; four continuing education courses for his law license; and a string of expensive restaurant bills, with a $906 tab at Atlanta’s Marcel steakhouse being the most expensive.”

Former Mayor Kasim Reed wrote these personal checks totalling nearly $12,000 to reimburse the city of Atlanta for charges to his city-backed credit card. The reimbursements covered charges from 2015 to 2017.

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It seems fortunate for Reed that he fought so hard for Bottoms to win election as his successor, because something tells me the records would have come much sooner had Mary Norwood won the race.

Jeff Dickerson, a former newspaperman who is in high demand to clean up politicians’ messes, told The AJC that Reed was conducting his own review of the credit card bills so that some opponent in a future political campaign wouldn’t use them against him.

At first, it seemed like Dickerson was saying that the mayor coincidentally was reviewing the same three years of records The AJC was looking at. But when we spoke this week, Dickerson said Reed first heard about it when he started getting questions from Torres about the bills. Also, Dickerson said Reed says an AJC person told him that the paper was looking into him.

Well, that should be no surprise. We look into just about everybody. Especially when they make it hard to get records.