OPINION: Atlanta City Council wants a watchdog with no bite

Atlanta Inspector General Shannon K. Manigault addressed the City Council with concerns that her team's investigations are being thwarted.

Credit: Atlanta city TV

Credit: Atlanta city TV

Atlanta Inspector General Shannon K. Manigault addressed the City Council with concerns that her team's investigations are being thwarted.

Everyone in government loves the idea of a watchdog with a bite. At least until one actually arrives.

In 2020, the city of Atlanta created the Office of Inspector General in the wake of an ongoing corruption scandal that ended up netting 10 federal convictions.

The idea was having an in-house inspector rooting around might keep low-level skullduggery from blossoming into federal crimes. Shannon Manigault was hired to be the city’s first-ever Inspector General and was cut loose to ferret out corruption, misspending or waste.

But an unusual visit Monday by Manigault to a City Council meeting has raised council members’ hackles, causing one to privately express “buyer’s remorse” in hiring her. Some wonder if she might be too aggressive. Or at least aggressively grandstanding.

Manigault, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former inspector in New York City, told the council her office is being hampered in its efforts to investigate. Instead of crafting her concerns in a strongly worded memo, she waited her turn with Atlanta’s aggrieved citizenry to address council members during the meeting’s public comment portion.

I suppose she figured there’s a pile of strongly worded memos that remain unread at City Hall. So a face-to-face was in order.

The Inspector General alleged there was a “concerted effort to interfere” with her team’s investigations. She said they found an email where a department manager ordered an employee who had been interviewed by investigators to summarize in writing what they were looking for.

Infographic about bribery scandals at Atlanta City Hall during a press conference at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Thursday, April 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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“That means investigations are being compromised, that department leadership intentionally compromised (investigators’) work,” she said, later adding, “Rather than give the office what it needs, hurdles have been erected to delay, impede and disclose our confidential investigations.”

“But there’s more,” she said. Some city officials are delaying turning over requested records, instead turning them into Open Records requests. That means investigators must stand in line with their requests along with the media and ordinary members of the public. This often takes weeks or months — or never — to get the info.

“This, of course, exposes our investigations to more people, which increases the likelihood of tainted witness testimony, destruction and withholding of evidence and obviously slows our investigation,” she told them.

Of course, Mayor Andre Dickens could write a strongly worded memo warning department heads not to do any of this.

Manigault’s surprise council visit came just days after she released an explosive report about alleged nepotism gone wild. The investigation found that city Human Resources Commissioner Tarlesha Smith created a job opening for her daughter and placed her in the $52,000-a-year gig. That might not raise eyebrows — at least in Atlanta — but the investigation found the daughter, who was not qualified for the job, then stopped showing up for work after getting mad at her supervisor because she could not work from home.

The supervisor moved to fire her young recalcitrant employee. Instead, Human Resources ended up investigating the supervisor and then moved to fire her for “bullying.”

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Atlanta City Councilmember Andrea Boone, (District 10)  speaks to members of the Adamsville community during a rally against violent crime at the Citgo gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Now that the report is public, Smith has been placed on administrative leave while the city sorts this out. Or until it blows over.

This all sounds like why you hire an inspector general in the first place.

However, Council members were largely not sympathetic to Manigault’s concerns.

Some complained Manigault had created an unnecessary drama by releasing her investigation without informing them first and then coming to the council to publicly air out her complaints about getting stonewalled.

Councilwoman Andrea Boone, who said she has spent 32 years working around City Hall, said this was just too out in the open. She said council members got no heads up and learned about the investigation while watching TV news.

“My hope is that we are not being egotistical and we are (not) playing with people’s lives,” said Boone, who spoke in the first-person plural but obviously meant “You.”

“I’ve talked with employees. They say your office has knocked on their doors,” she said. “They say your office has been through their cash apps. They say equipment has been confiscated. They say you are holding their phones.

“I want to say there’s something called the FBI,” Boone said.

My guess is the FBI wouldn’t even slow down their SUV to glance at a case of aggravated nepotism.

Manigault responded to the concern about the confiscated phones, telling the council, “I am functioning as an independent entity. That’s what entities that are tasked with investigations do.”

(Later, she told me she grabbed city-issued equipment, not the employees’ personal iPhones.)

Boone told her, “I want this body to take a deep dive into your office,” sounding ominously like the HR investigation that ended up trying to fire the HR Commissioner’s daughter.

Later, Boone told me she meant that the city should look at how other cities investigate alleged wrong doing.

I called Stacey Kalberman, a lawyer who once was run off the state ethics job for investigating the former governor and then who rankled top officials in DeKalb County because of her initiative.

“I used to say I wanted a sign in my office saying, ‘First, let’s kill the ethics officers,’ because that’s what always happens,” she told me, with a twist on Shakespeare’s line about lawyers. “No one really wants ethics officers to do their job.”