Doug Hooker is executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. A state audit — which was released shortly before the start of the 2018 General Assembly session — raised questions about thousands of dollars Hooker spent on food, alcohol and other personal items, including air flight upgrades.

Georgia lawmakers, unhappy about chief’s bonus, may continue ARC cuts

The executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission was given a $30,000 bonus less than a year after lawmakers pulled 60 percent of the planning agency’s state funding when an audit said he misused his purchasing card, an Atlanta-Journal Constitution and Channel 2 Action News review found.

Douglas Hooker, who was paid $244,000 in fiscal 2018, received the bonus in January. Lawmakers are considering continuing the cut in ARC funding into next year because they said they weren’t sufficiently satisfied that the agency had addressed the audit’s findings.

The bonus surprised Georgia House leaders who’d supported cutting the ARC’s funding over the audit.

“I don’t know how it’s justified,” said state Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, chairwoman of a House budget subcommittee.

In a statement, ARC spokeswoman Susan Chana said after the audit “identified some procedural issues that have subsequently been addressed,” the agency’s board did not give Hooker a bonus for 2017.

“In his 2018 performance review, he was awarded a bonus for leading efforts to address the most pressing issues facing our region, while continuing to refine and improve internal operations within the agency,” she said.

When Hooker joined the ARC in 2011, a bonus structure was included as part of his compensation by the agency’s board, which is made up mostly of metro Atlanta elected officials. The board reviews his performance and determines whether to give him a bonus each year.

The state audit — which was released shortly before the start of the 2018 General Assembly session — raised questions about thousands of dollars Hooker spent on food, alcohol and other personal items, including air flight upgrades.

State auditors did not provide an estimate for the full amount of money it believed may have been mismanaged by the ARC. But specific examples included in the audit’s final report alone totaled more than $10,000.

The report, part of a series of scheduled probes into each of the state’s 12 regional commissions, found that the ARC did not keep “adequate documentation” of purchases made with employee fuel cards and raised questions about the lack of a formal dollar limit for meals expensed by employees.

The audit said the ARC approved multiple employee meal reimbursements without the necessary itemized receipts (or receipts at all) and, in some cases, improperly reimbursed employees for alcohol purchases.

The state obtained detailed receipts of some of those meals and found that Hooker “charged alcohol on at least four occasions without paying it back.” Those included alcohol purchased during a $560 dinner at Empire State South in Atlanta and as part of a $106 room service bill in Salt Lake City, according to documents.

Hooker made multiple “personal purchases” on his ARC purchasing card, auditors said — paying back the charges in some cases and not doing so in others.

The ARC is a quasi-governmental agency that describes itself as helping “focus the region’s leadership, attention and resources on critical issues.” Its policies and recommendations on issues such as transportation are often heeded by the local governments within its sphere of influence.

The agency’s member governments are the city of Atlanta and Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties. Those local governments pay dues to the ARC. The agency also receives state and federal funds. Its total budget is more than $80 million.

The state cut was more of a symbolic slap at the ARC over the audit than anything that would greatly hurt its bottom line.

The $225,000 the state provides each year was cut by $150,000 for fiscal 2019, which began July 1.

Last month, the Georgia House passed a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year — which begins June 30 — that continues the $150,000 cut into 2020.

Lawmakers said they weren’t given enough information to determine whether the ARC resolved issues raised by the audit.

Houston said the cut was an attempt to get the ARC “to straighten up.” She said the cut was meant to send a clear message: “Don’t spend taxpayer money frivolously.”

Chana, the ARC spokeswoman, said her agency opted not to try to fight to get the state money back so it could shift “our resources to focus on legislative issues with greater impact on the metro Atlanta region.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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