Torpy at Large: Status quo is the Bottoms line in Atlanta mayor’s race

City Hall shakeup unlikely under candidate who now leads

As Atlanta voters shuffle to the polls Tuesday to pick a new mayor, some might desire a candidate who wants to clean up City Hall.

For two years, the feds have investigated bribery in the city's contracting process. Two contractors have already 'fessed up, as did city procurement director Adam Smith, which is a worrisome thing. You hate to see that the person tasked with ensuring the integrity of the contracting process is a fellow with larceny in his heart.

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Mayor Kasim Reed tells the public that 99.99 percent of city employees are trustworthy. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the rare rotten apple — the .01 percent — was the employee who ran the show, the quarterback of corruption.

In court, a federal prosecutor said “corruption in the city of Atlanta is prolific.”

Prolific means “fruitful” or “abounding,” so something tells me that the tiny percentage of rotten fruit at City Hall might abound.

Accordingly, mayoral candidates are falling all over themselves to urge the city to put the brakes on some contracting until the feds — and city officials — determine just how bad things really are.

In August, mayoral candidate and City Council President Ceasar Mitchell called for a moratorium on non-emergency contracts and was immediately smacked down by The Mayor. Other candidates, including former Reed aide (and now enemy) Peter Aman followed suit. So did former Mayor Shirley Franklin.

In a recent forum, councilman and mayoral candidate Kwanza Hall said, “There are a lot of organizations, companies, that have been at the public trough for way too long. They’ve been in there, receiving contracts — 30, 40, 50 years, if not longer. We may even know some of them. But it has to turn over.”

Hmmm. New blood. That’s an intriguing thought. Maybe, as Kwanza said, it really is time to “turn over” the process and get new blood into the mix. You know, get some new faces feeding at the public trough. Perhaps if contractors didn’t have such sway over City Hall …

Naw, that’s crazy. Contractors are as dependable as golden retrievers when it comes to funding political campaigns.

So, if you want status quo, if you want contractors continuing to hold sway at City Hall, then Keisha Lance Bottoms seems to be your candidate.

Atlanta mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms talks with current Mayor Kasim Reed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation and Aquatic Center in Atlanta on Oct. 30, 2017.

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Bottoms, Hizzoner’s chief coat holder on the City Council and his candidate in the race, is raking in contractor cash, absolutely raking it in. It’s not even close when it comes to the other candidates. It seems that for some magic reason (Kasim Reed) contractors are deciding (Kasim Reed) to back Bottoms en masse.

When Bottoms kicked off her campaign last year, execs and family members of the PRAD Group, an engineering firm that has long done business with the city, were among the first to donate to Team Keisha. They doled out more than $25,000, which at the time made up half of her contributions.

But there was a problem. In September, the feds raided PRAD’s offices. And a week later, procurement chief Smith pleaded guilty to receiving $1,000 gifts from a vendor. This happened, like, 30 times. And in restaurant bathrooms, the feds said.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the investigation, the unnamed vendor is Jeff Jafari, PRAD’s recently retired VP. I’m told it was Smith who flipped on Jafari, although the latter is not cooperating. I’m also told Smith even took it upon himself to record conversations.

Atlanta candidate for mayor Mary Norwood during a mayoral forum  on Sept. 19, 2017.

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

After this came out, Bottoms returned the contributions back to her backers at PRAD.

How’s a candidate to know? With all the contractor-contributors out there, it’s hard to determine which ones are fans of good government, which ones are out for some kind of payback, and which ones are out-and-out shady.

As 2017 rolled around, Reed took part in a kick-off to raise cash for his candidate. Jafari was part of the host committee, as were numerous other contractors: Wassim Hojeij of Hojeij Branded Foods; Dwayne Heard, executive at Master ConcessionAir; and Daniel Halpern, CEO of Jackmont Hospitality, who co-chaired Reed’s 2009 campaign.

It’s all so cozy that I can picture attendees in feet pajamas.

And then there’s this. In August, dozens of reps for potential contractors met at a pre-bid conference for a series of lucrative contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for retail space at airport concourses.

My colleagues dug into the numbers and found that this eager bunch gave more than $287,000 to mayoral candidates. Those giving money — lots of money — included the regulars: Hojeij Branded Foods ($66,450), Concessions International ($29,700), and Master ConcessionAir ($48,165).

Almost two-thirds of this windfall, $186,554, went to Bottoms. This is not including all the other city contractors who have been generous to her.

Atlanta mayoral candidates, from left: Cathy Woolard, Ceasar Mitchell and John Eaves.

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About 20 percent, $59,000, went to Ceasar Mitchell, although that spigot was turned off after he called for the contracting process to slow down. (Councilwoman Mary Norwood got $14,750, Kwanza Hall got $13,350, and the rest of the field got pieces of the remaining $13,700.)

Bottoms told my AJC colleague Dan Klepal, “Business owners read polls like the rest of us and have likely donated because after looking at all of the candidates, they have determined that I am the only Democrat with a clear path to victory.”

I’m confused. Does this mean contractors think Democrats are better at giving them business? Or do contractors simply prefer those leading in the polls? And why would this be? Nowhere does it indicate that anyone is looking for a good fumigator.

According to a WSB-TV/Landmark Communications poll released Friday, Bottoms has overtaken the campaign’s longtime leader, Norwood — 25 percent to 23 percent.

Perhaps all those TV ads purchased by contractor donations are working.