An unwelcome problem again appears

An investigation into alleged bribes in Atlanta has given new life to old concerns about city contracting improprieties. The city should move quickly to identify, fix any systemic problems.

The long slog of yet another investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall is distressing for those who’d come to believe that the city’s government had moved past a history of graft, both perceived and real, around public contracts.

After all, some years had elapsed since the last round of allegations of corrupt behavior. Yet, the old examples and names of the accused and convicted are still well-known and well-remembered.

Observers, especially those with interests primarily outside city limits, are no doubt exulting at what they see as déjà vu all over again. As in an Atlanta government with at least some persistently corrosive rot still stubbornly gnawing at its core.

They have a point, at least to the extent that taxpayers and citizens should be able to expect transparent, reasonably well-functioning governance that is routinely conducted in an above-board manner. Alleged shortcomings such as the latest one now unfolding rattle the public confidence that ought to be a necessary link in the relationship between the people and the government they elect.

Falling well short of this civic ideal is not a localized effect, we’d suggest. In truth, problems of public corruption or similar government shenanigans are in no way confined within the city’s borders. DeKalb County’s recent problems come readily to mind. As do corruption allegations that once roiled Gwinnett County government and led to criminal proceedings. The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal is another. And the ongoing penchant for self-dealing by some lawmakers at the Gold Dome and elsewhere in state government, while not always patently illegal, repeatedly shows that, seen broadly, some public officials are far from immune to taking advantage of questionable opportunities to benefit themselves.

Seeing the big picture, though, does not diminish the significance of what’s going on in Atlanta as federal prosecutors examine city contracts and investigate bribes allegedly paid year after year as the price of entry for gaining city work.

There’s a long history here, one stretching back at least to a 1929 City Hall contracting bribe, noted earlier this month by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporter Alan Judd.

For all these reasons, it’s understandable that metro Atlantans and others are prone to try and connect dots across time, creating patterns that may or may not be rooted in actual behavior, shady relationships or just plain flawed procedures that leave the city open to recurring allegations and escapades of this nature. Perceptions quickly morph into reality, whether City Hall likes it or not. We believe Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, an astute politician, already knows that.

It’s worth noting that nothing now known links Reed in any way with the unfolding scandal that has led two businessmen to plead guilty in federal court in connection with more than $1 million in bribes prosecutors allege were paid between 2010 and 2015.

Reed has admitted his frustration with a scenario now scraping away at the public’s perception of his administration. During a recent press conference, the mayor remarked that, “The budget of the city of Atlanta is $2 billion a year. We’ve had seven budgets; that’s $14 billion. We’ve had hundreds of procurements without issue. I have 8,500 individuals on any given day who work for me. This investigation is focused on $1 million in alleged bribes. I don’t know what percentage that would be, but it would be infinitesimal. But the problem is not infinitesimal. If someone is stealing, we need to get to the bottom of it.”

The mayor has a point. And he and his administration need to do all they can to facilitate getting “to the bottom of it.” Reed says the city has cooperated fully with the feds, which is both good and to be expected.

The city’s performance in releasing public records around the matter has been shakier. It did improve over time as journalists and public accountability advocates rightly complained about how the document release has been handled.

The city initially declined to release the records, citing the ongoing federal investigation. Transparency proponents decried that stance, arguing that Georgia’s Open Records law required their release.

The city relented earlier this month – after a fashion — producing an imposing array of file boxes of paper records stacked in the old City Council chambers. Reporters examining the materials complained about blank pages and others that were difficult to read because of formatting or size of type.

Open-government types and critics could be thus forgiven for assuming that the city was not exactly going full-tilt early on to comply with both letter and spirit of disclosure law.

The city subsequently announced that it was rolling out the documents in an electronic format better suited to the 21st century than the 20th, or even the 19th. Making available the records in digital form makes it much easier and efficient for today’s journalists (or any other person requesting the documents) to study and analyze them.

In hindsight, even the city now has to believe that its release of the records should have been handled much more smoothly.

We believe that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis uttered timeless truth when he observed a century ago that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” We’d add that it can both facilitate the hunt for truth and help heal public skepticism of government.

The Reed administration can best protect both the public’s interest – and its own legacy – by continuing to move as quickly as possible to make relevant records readily available in modern formats.

And at this point likely no one, aside from federal prosecutors, has a valid inkling of where this investigation will end up. Given the guilty pleas so far, it’s a safe assumption that there’s more to come that’s likely to further rattle public perceptions of city government.

It’s a necessary price that must be paid to unearth wrongdoing and address it via the legal system.

For its part, Atlanta’s city government should also move to make things right by quickly and comprehensively identifying and fixing any shortcomings in its procurement apparatus.

That would offer the best chance of finally halting periodic recurrences of public corruption nightmares.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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