OPINION: Atlanta ex-CFO shot down by his hubris, not his machine guns

Jim Beard, the city of Atlanta's former CFO, leaves the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta, jogging to the car of one of his attorneys, Brittany Cambre, on Thursday, Sept 17, 2020. Beard had just entered a plea of not guilty to multiple federal charges. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The feds last week finally got around to indicting Machine Gun Beard, the city of Atlanta’s one-time fiscal brain.

They got former chief financial officer Jim Beard on charges that the feds usually employ when taking down white-collar criminals — wire fraud and tax chicanery.

The former CFO is the latest high-ranking Atlanta official snared in a slow-moving corruption investigation at City Hall. It seems that Beard’s alleged run of lawlessness came to light when investigators cast a deep net and happened to scoop him up. But his case isn’t the usual systematic, pay-to-play bribery case. His charges reveal a sense of petty, yet high-dollar, chiseling.

He has pleaded not guilty.

ExploreEX-CFO indictment shows complexity of Atlanta City Hall probe

The thing that jumps out to most people about Beard’s case is the allegation that he used $2,641 in taxpayers’ money to buy a couple of machine guns for personal use. Prosecutors say he used the Atlanta Police Department as a front to get the weapons.

Why? I suppose it could be that machine guns are just really cool if you’re into that sort of thing. And rare, because most regular folks can’t get their mitts on them due to stringent legal requirements.

Two fully automatic rifles that Atlanta police say were owned by the city’s former chief financial officer Jim Beard. The city provided federal prosecutors with information about the purchase of the weapons in response to a subpoena in relation to the ongoing federal corruption investigation of Atlanta City Hall. (Atlanta Police Department)

But what really stands out here is not a buttoned-down official’s penchant for firepower. No, what’s really astounding is the unabashed audaciousness of what he allegedly tried to get away with on the city’s dime:

— Paying $3,877 for digs at a swanky hotel in Chicago so his stepdaughter could attend the Lollapalooza music fest (twice!).

— Flying to the New Orleans Jazz Fest with a buddy and later telling the IRS it was a business expense for a consulting company that he ran, one that he kept hidden from the city.

— Attending conferences and getting reimbursed by the event organizers, even though the city had already paid the tab.

— A three-day romantic staycation with his wife at the St. Regis hotel in Atlanta, where $1,356 got him an upgraded room, private dining and an $80 rose petal turndown, which is tossing rose petals all over the bed. (I had to look that up because I’m not terribly romantic, and I’m cheap.)

Those examples might sound like sophisticated pilfering or selfishness run amok. You would be correct to think that. But here’s the really crazy, over-the-top thing about all that alleged stealing: Beard is accused of doing all this after the IRS told him in July 2015 that his 2013 tax returns were being audited.

Beard had claimed $33,500 in “business losses” as exemptions. And then, as he was scrambling to come up with receipts for his supposed 2013 deductions, he continued to scam the city, the feds say. All the while, he was making between $221,000 (in 2013) and $274,000 (when he left the city in 2018).

Jim Beard, former Atlanta chief financial officer, spent tens of thousands of dollars on pricey airfare, hotels and restaurants during the last three years of Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration. (Photo: LEON STAFFORD/LSTAFFORD@AJC.COM)

Now, here’s one for you: He is accused of flying to a conference in D.C., charging the city for a $951 flight, then hitting up the event organizers for the price of a $1,252 plane ticket he had already canceled. Then he allegedly told the IRS the trip was a business expense to his consulting company, the one he was hiding from the city.

So this was not only double dipping — getting reimbursed by both the city and the conference organizers. This was triple dipping! Or maybe two scoops with fudge, whipped cream and a cherry. If true, it’s squeezing every cent out of a scam.

Last week, Beard’s attorney, Scott Grubman, said his client had done a bang-up job while operating the city’s finances, putting it on good footing during his time there.

As for the charges against his client, Grubman said: “We have reviewed the indictment and, suffice it to say, vehemently disagree with the various allegations.”

In an earlier statement, Grubman said authorities ought to be out there chasing real crooks such as street gangs and cyberthieves.

I didn’t attend law school, but I’ll pass this bit of legal strategy to Beard’s defense team free of charge. Grubman should go to court and argue, “My guy has negotiated deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars and overseen the finances of a great American city. He understands complicated public financing and mind-muddling bond transactions. He can even spell debentures. Do you think he’d be dumb enough to try to get away with something like this?”

However, the feds would respond: “Yep.”

Beard oversaw the city’s money during a good run financially, as former Mayor Kasim Reed would be the first one to tell you. The budget was balanced, and portions of the city developed and flourished during a stretch of prosperity.

But there was a sense of entitlement ingrained in the Reed administration, for instance: The first-class, $90,000 trip to South Africa (Hizzoner, staff and bodyguards); a $10,000 trip to Paris to check out street furniture (Beard); a $12,500 going-away dinner for the mayor and his staff (paid for by Beard’s city and private credit cards); and $360,000 in bonuses for city higher-ups (approved by Beard and two other honchos).

La Suite Shangri-La terrace at the Shangri-La, a five-star luxury hotel in Paris. Atlanta’s former chief financial officer Jim Beard repaid taxpayers $10,277 for a stay at the hotel in 2017. Beard did not submit a receipt, so records do not show which room he stayed in. (Shangri-La Hotel)

For five years, federal authorities have investigated the former administration, including the big fellow, who has denied being involved in anything illegal or untoward.

Still, there was a vein of criminality at City Hall, as the city’s former procurement director and deputy chief of staff each pleaded guilty to bribery charges, and the contract compliance officer pleaded guilty to wire fraud. The former water commissioner has been indicted on bribery charges, as has the former mayor’s political consultant. That’s not to mention the contractors who’ve pleaded guilty or been indicted.

And, of course, there’s the dude who tossed a brick through a perceived snitch’s window and dumped dead rats on his doorway to deliver a message.

My guess is prosecutors tried to get Beard to tell all he knows about City Hall, and he didn’t give them — or have — what they wanted. The machine gun charges, which can bring an extra nudge when it comes to sentencing, could serve as an inducement for Beard to reconsider.

Stay tuned.

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