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In Atlanta bribery case, echoes of past scandals

Could an investigation on Reed’s watch taint his legacy?

At 11:30 Thursday morning, Kasim Reed cast himself in a strangely familiar role for Atlanta mayors: the public face of a City Hall bribery scandal.

For 30 minutes, Reed answered reporters’ questions against a backdrop of 147 boxes that held some of the 1.4 million documents the city has turned over to federal investigators. He wanted to illustrate that his administration has nothing to hide. But an inconvenient fact undermined the visual: The documents may contain evidence of the kind of corruption that has haunted the city – and its mayors – for decades.

“I have never taken a bribe,” Reed said, and, in fact, he has not been implicated in a scheme that purportedly involved more than $1 million in payoffs to obtain city work.

Nevertheless, coming in the final months of his eight-year tenure, the bribery case threatens to taint Reed’s legacy. At the same time, it bears striking similarities to previous scandals, particularly one that resulted in a prison sentence for one of Reed’s predecessors, Bill Campbell.

So far, federal authorities have charged two city contractors with bribery: Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell, who pleaded guilty last month, and Charles P. Richards Jr., who is scheduled to enter a plea on Thursday. Mitchell has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Investigators also are focusing on a political consultant and former city official, Mitzi Bickers, who worked on Reed’s 2009 mayoral campaign. She also once worked for Mitchell. A former employee of Bickers’ communications firm has been charged with trying to intimidate Mitchell by throwing a brick through a window and placing dead rats around his home.

Bickers has not been charged, and she has declined repeated requests to comment.

In interviews late last week, ethics watchdogs, public officials and others suggested the investigation may extend well beyond contracts awarded to Mitchell and Richards. Other contractors, as well as city officials, could face corruption charges.

Ultimately, though, it is Reed who will be most associated with the scandal, even if no evidence emerges that he engaged in wrongdoing, said Felicia Moore, a member of the Atlanta City Council.

“It happened during his watch,” Moore said. “There’s a responsibility to be had.”

History repeats

 Corruption in Atlanta’s city government is as old as City Hall itself.

In November 1929, a city alderman disclosed that a contract for electrical wiring in the new City Hall on Mitchell Street went to a company that paid a $3,500 bribe.

A group of business owners – some of whom had paid bribes themselves – demanded an investigation, and a prosecutor offered immunity to anyone who would testify about payoffs, said Timothy Crimmins, a history professor at Georgia State University who has written about the scandal.

The case ended with convictions for 16 city officials, six of them elected lawmakers.

The 1929 bribe was the equivalent of only about $50,000 today. But other than the size of the payoffs, Crimmins said, not much seems to have changed.

“I’ll quote my father-in-law: The same thing’s going on, there’s just a different crowd doing it,” he said.

Allegations of improprieties have intensified in the past few decades, especially surrounding contracts for the city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Billion-dollar construction projects and lucrative concessions deals have drawn particular scrutiny.

In 1993 and 1994, at the end of Maynard Jackson’s final term as mayor, federal authorities uncovered a scheme to influence contracts to operate airport gift shops. Like the current case, this one involved at least $1 million in bribes.

Two city officials – Ira Jackson, a former city council member appointed by the mayor to run the airport, and council member D.L. “Buddy” Fowlkes – were convicted on charges including bribery, mail fraud and tax evasion. Three other men were convicted of paying the bribes.

One of them, Harold Echols, testified that he tried to bribe two other officials: Marvin Arrington, then the city council president, and Bill Campbell, then a council member. Prosecutors played a surveillance video in which Echols stuffed five $100 bills into Arrington’s pocket. Arrington, though, said he considered the money a campaign contribution and disclosed it as such.

Neither Arrington nor Campbell was charged.

The case went to trial shortly after Campbell became mayor, casting an early pall on an administration that eventually would be overwhelmed by scandal.

In December 1999, federal authorities opened another investigation into the pay-to-play culture of city contracting — this time, under Campbell, said Oliver Halle, a retired FBI agent who worked on the case for four years.

The Campbell investigation strongly parallels the current case, Halle said. In both, he said, it appears that companies seeking city work made payments to intermediaries who promised to share it with officials with the authority to award contracts.

But it is important, Halle said, to determine whether the initial recipients actually passed on the money or kept it for themselves.

“It could be a rip-off, a con game,” he said. “You have to keep an open mind to these scenarios.”

In the Campbell case, authorities worked methodically for almost five years, charging one or sometimes two people at a time. Most agreed to help investigators in exchange for shorter prison sentences, and their testimony implicated other players in a city government that had come to resemble a criminal enterprise.

“We indicted a whole bunch of people before we ever got up to the mayor himself,” Halle said.

Ten former city officials and contractors pleaded guilty before a grand jury indicted Campbell in 2004, more than two years after he left office. A jury convicted him on tax-evasion charges in 2006, and he served 26 months in a federal prison. No other Atlanta mayor has ever been charged or convicted in a corruption case.

The city gave documents to federal authorities in response to two subpoenas: one issued last August requesting information on Bickers and another from November seeking details about city work that Mitchell and Richards performed.

Last month, news organizations submitted requests under the Georgia Open Records Act to review the documents. The city initially declined to release the material but relented under threat of legal action. Reed said Thursday the city was acting “in the spirit of complete transparency.”

But the city made available only paper copies, not the electronic files it had given the federal investigators. Reporters entering the old city council chambers encountered more than 400 document-packed boxes, some in stacks more than 6 feet high. Searching for specific information was impossible, and the material was not indexed. Printouts of spreadsheets were shrunk to the degree that they looked like bar codes. Thousands of pages were blank. Still, working at a rate of a page a minute, examining all the documents would take more than 22,000 hours.

Reed said the documents were released to the public in paper form because officials had to redact personal information, such as Social Security numbers, about city employees and others. City lawyers said 77,000 pages required such redactions.

The open records law requires government agencies to release documents and data in the electronic form in which they are stored. Late Friday, after appeals from news organizations, the city began making the material available in electronic form on a secure website.

Moore, the council member, said the bribery case points to the need for greater transparency in city government. Two years ago, she proposed posting all vendor payments online, a move that she thinks would discourage corruption. Losing bidders on city contracts, among others, would monitor spending, she said.

Reed has not supported the proposal, Moore said, and it has not advanced at the council.

“Everyone says they’re for transparency and they believe in transparency,” Moore said. “But people need to be motivated to make it happen.”

William Perry, who heads the advocacy group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said he doubted the documents released Thursday would contain clear evidence of corruption. Indeed, none has yet emerged. But Perry said that his conversations with city officials suggest the scandal may eclipse the corruption cases of the Campbell years.

“I think it’s going to be bigger,” he said. “I think this has been widespread.”

Whether investigators are targeting city officials is not clear. Reed said Thursday he had not been questioned. Nor, he said, has he hired a lawyer to represent him in talks with prosecutors.

As for the effect on his political legacy, Reed said, “I’m not thinking about that right now.”

But he acknowledged feeling “deep frustration and anger, candidly.”

“I have given my life to this job for seven years,” Reed said. “Day in and day out, I have poured myself into this job. I’ve wanted to be mayor of Atlanta since I was 13. If you think that I would throw my life away for some short-term gratification, you don’t know me well and you don’t know the plans I have for my own life.”

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