Perhaps Hizzoner crossed his fingers when he stood amid 1.5 million pages of documents at City Hall last year and spoke about “a spirit of complete transparency.”
Former Mayor Kasim Reed was trying to diminish the effects of an unfolding bribery scandal in February 2017 when he called a press conference. Reed is a lawyer, and good attorneys are adept at side-stepping the truth. By adding “spirit” to the term “complete transparency,” he was able to not exactly lie.
One of the meanings of “spirit” on my Internet dictionary is “a fairy, sprite, or elf.” Everyone knows fairies, sprites and elves are make-believe. And so was Reed’s version of “complete transparency.”
Last week, Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Reed kept secret a potentially damning subpoena, one that indicated the feds were turning over rocks all over the place. The subpoena, dated Sept. 9, 2016, indicated the investigation went far deeper than he let on at the press conference.
During a sometimes contentious discussion with the media, the mayor made it seem like the problem centered around a couple of contractors who had recently ‘fessed up to bribery. What wasn’t released — and what he certainly knew at the time — was the FBI was looking into contracts concerning the airport, the water department, vendors with ties to Reed, and financial records for three members of his Cabinet, including Adam Smith, the head of procurement who is now sleeping on a federal cot.
All that demonstrates the probe was a whole lot wider than originally thought at the time. So, why’d the mayor fudge the truth?
Well, Reed had 11 more months to run a city and wanted to slam through more legislation, which is harder to do when people are always trying to connect the dots and asking questions about unseemly dealings.
Also, he had a new mayor to get elected. And while it would be months before he would officially endorse a candidate, then-Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms was already getting Reed’s support. Several people tight with him and named in the 2016 undisclosed subpoena had already given her political donations.
(She later returned thousands of dollars as the election approached and these connections became public. But by then, she had moved atop the pile of candidates.)
The question that lingers is this: What if the full extent of the corruption investigation had come out early last year, when a dozen candidates jockeyed for lanes? Would that have set Reed back on his heels and eroded the value of his bully pulpit?
Who knows? It’s one of those “What if?” quirks of history. What if the Confederates took Little Round Top and decimated the Union flank at Gettysburg? Would we all be speaking Southern now?
Harvey Newman, a retired Georgia State University professor of public policy and longtime observer of Atlanta politics, in fact had a Yankee great-grandfather at Gettysburg. But that’s another story.
The professor said early disclosure of the subpoena would have affected the election.
“At the very minimum, Reed’s endorsement would have meant a whole lot less,” Newman said. “It would have shown there was more than a cloud over City Hall; it was raining. The hand-off from one mayor to the next wouldn’t have mattered as much if we knew then what we know now.”
The feds last month subpoenaed records about Reed’s spending, but he has not been accused of anything and has vociferously denied any wrongdoing.
In statements last week, Reed said he withheld the subpoena because it sought personnel information about two top aides he fired. Later, he added that those documents were “unrelated to the federal bribery investigation.”
Um, they came from the same grand jury investigating corruption. I smell some more “spirit of complete transparency” here.
I called mayoral candidates Vincent Fort, Mary Norwood, Ceasar Mitchell and Cathy Woolard.
Bottoms, the winner, said it wouldn’t have mattered. Others differ, to varying degrees.
“In January 2017, I wasn’t prepared to say ‘crisis of corruption.’ I thought it was a few bad apples all the way into the summer,” said Mitchell, who was City Council president and an early front-runner who faded through the year.
“It would have created a whole different conversation and tone of the campaign,” he said. “There would have been a little less credence on the attacks on us from the former mayor.”
Reed, who enjoyed a high approval rating at the time, beat up repeatedly on several candidates, going as far as creating foam boards attacking Mitchell and setting them up in the City Hall atrium.
Norwood, who ended up losing a tight runoff to Bottoms, said, “Whether it could have influenced an election, I don’t know. It could have. An election is so dynamic, there are so many allegations, concerns, constituencies.
“Anyways, it was dereliction of duty and responsibility not to release that information to the City Council, the public and the media.”
Fort ran as a populist outsider and came early with charges that City Hall suffered a “Culture of Corruption.” But he was dismissed by some as an alarmist.
“The recent revelations shock me at the depths of the arrogance in play here,” he said.
Reed’s city credit card, exposed in an AJC/Channel 2 story last month, showed he spent like a drunken sailor. Hizzoner had aides get expensive overseas airline tickets, and doled out $800,000 in questionable bonuses at the end of his term.
Woolard raised issues of City Hall corruption early on, too. “But it didn’t make the business community support me or the press to think of me as a viable candidate,” she said. “Reed knew the city was being investigated, but that didn’t change his behavior.”
“People say they want ethical government,” Woolard said. “But they don’t vote that way.”