Atlanta Mayoral candidate Ceasar Mitchell said Monday that he thinks the Georgia Bureau of Investigation should probe the controversial spending by a ballot committee tied to Mayor Kasim Reed.
The Citizens For Better Transportation 2016 raised $1.2 million, but only spent half that amount convincing voters to support a sales tax increase on the ballot last November to fund transportation improvements in the city.
But the committee then claimed zero cash on hand on the summary pages of two campaign finance reports after the election, despite having hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank.
In June, seven months after the 2016 election, Reed advised the committee to direct maximum $2,600 contributions to seven council members who are among his most loyal supporters: Natalyn Archibong; Michael Julian Bond; C.T. Martin; Joyce Sheperd; Carla Smith; Cleta Winslow; and Ivory Lee Young.
All the council members are up for re-election; Martin is running for council president.
An AJC review of the committee’s financial reports found it had more than $500,000 still on hand after its Oct. 6, 2017, disclosure, and several mayoral candidates expressed concern that portions of that money could be spent benefiting Keisha Lance Bottoms’ mayoral campaign.
“This question goes beyond ethics and whether or not this was an illegal use of funds,” Mitchell said Monday. “This was a committee formed by and through state law, so a state investigative agency is best suited to investigate it.”
The mayor’s communication office called Mitchell’s comment “nonsense,” and went on the attack citing the former council president’s refusal to release his income tax returns, the $8,000 ethics fine levied against him in March and a Political Action Committee currently paying for television ads on his behalf.
“We have answered all questions put to us,” the statement says, referring to the committee’s spending. “All expenditures were completely ethical and proper.”
The state ethics commission isn’t so sure, and is currently auditing the committee’s spending. Former mayor Shirley Franklin has also condemned the committee’s use of money, calling it a “slush fund” that is an “example of rampant, systematic corruption that is running through city government and the political process.”
Mayoral candidate Cathy Woolard, a former City Council member, said the ethics commission’s audit should proceed before any other investigation.
“If there is criminal activity that is uncovered then a criminal investigation is in order,” Woolard said. “But the blatant disregard of any semblance of compliance with the law in light of the bribery scandal … really highlights the importance of this election for restoring integrity to City Hall.”
As the AJC has previously reported, many mayoral candidates have incomplete disclosure filings and have raised vast sums from city vendors and contractors. About 20 percent of Keisha Lance Bottoms’s donors, for example, do not list their employer as required by law.
Meanwhile, most of the council candidates aren’t taking any chances.
Three candidates — Bond, Smith and Young — have vowed to return the contributions from the transportation committee.
Young said he will return the money “in an abundance of caution.”
“I do not believe it was the intent of Citizens For Better Transportation to violate the laws regarding these type of funds,” Young said. “But as we think about it, I’m sure in light of this question (that) this is the right thing to do.”
Sheperd and Archibong said they have given their contributions to non-profits in their districts.
“My decision to make this donation was informed by the recent AJC article regarding these funds,” she said in an email. “Prior to reading that article, I had no idea about these funds.”
Martin and Winslow did not respond to messages left for them by the AJC, asking if they plan to return the donations.
Georgia News Lab reporter Victoria Knight contributed to this report.