Fixing a long-running culture of corruption

Atlanta city government’s systemic association with institutionalized corruption and cronyism goes back generations. Somehow, this “culture of patronage” only seems to expose its head once or twice a decade.

Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell, the head of a high-profile construction management firm, has now pleaded guilty in an extensive bribery scandal prosecutors allege involves more than $1 million in cash payments to city employees over six years. They assert the cash payments were to secure lucrative contracts with the City of Atlanta. Winning these contracts made Mitchell a rich man, with yearly revenues approaching $3 million. In gaming the system, Mitchell threw away a minority-owned family business started by his father nearly 60 years ago – not to mention dozens of employees left without jobs.

In 2004, Mayor Bill Campbell was charged with taking bribes. Around the same time, Fulton County Commissioner Mitch Skandalakis was charged with lying to investigators as part of a corruption investigation. In the mid-’90s, airport commissioner and councilman Ira Jackson was convicted of accepting bribes.

Yet the “pay to play” culture on the part of airport officials and City of Atlanta seems to quietly continue undeterred. In 2010, the City was hit with a multimillion-dollar verdict for not properly bidding indoor signage contracts. We also learned as part of a recent investigation that nearly every contract awarded at the airport was to a campaign donor. Some of these contracts had not re-bid for 30-plus years.

So what have we learned from the plethora of airport scandals? Apparently nothing.

With the Mitchell scandal coming to light and airport investigations ongoing, employees inside the cubicles of City Hall are again waiting for more shoes to drop. Mitchell is cooperating with the feds to avoid serving a substantial jail sentence, naming names as to whom he did “business” with in order to secure city contracts.

Mitchell, Campbell, Skandalakis and Jackson all outline a systemic failure. Clearly a few months or even a couple of years in jail is not a deterrent. So what do we do after 60-plus years of not addressing the problem in any meaningful fashion?

In talking with legitimate design-build contractors, there are two proposals that would go a long way to minimize outside influence.

For the majority of contracts, a committee would receive proposals and then vote on who gets the contract. This would minimize the influence of any city official over the selection process.

For the higher-dollar projects, contractors would be required to make a presentation to the committee as well as provide a sealed bid. Equal weight would apply to both aspects of the process so that the most qualified are chosen and not just lowest bidder. This would further encourage more established contractors to apply for these jobs instead of spending time and money putting together a proposal and then being underbid by a less-prepared contractor.

Why not just use purely sealed bids for all contracts? While a seemingly simple solution, most qualified and competent developers don’t bother to apply as it promotes less-qualified applicants to underbid the jobs and earn contracts.

The solution to end the culture of patronage is straightforward. The desire to implement it is lacking.

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Manubir “Manny” Arora is a white-collar and criminal defense lawyer in Atlanta.

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