The federal investigation into pay-to-play contracting at Atlanta City Hall hasn’t shut down the steady flow of cash from city vendors to the campaign accounts of people trying to succeed Kasim Reed and become the city’s 60th mayor.
Companies and individuals with a stake in city business have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the major candidates, according to an analysis of campaign disclosure statements by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia News Lab.
The list of contributors includes vendors and concessionaires at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, contractors with the city’s public works department and others that provide services to the city.
A complete accounting of the donations is difficult because of loose reporting rules that have allowed unchecked errors and omissions made in the campaign filings by many of the leading candidates.
But an analysis of city vendors found hundreds of donations from individuals who work for companies that have had a financial relationship with City Hall. Some vendors also gave directly to the candidates.
To identify city vendors, the AJC and News Lab analyzed a database of city payments from 2010-2014 and contracts of $1 million or more awarded from 2015 to early 2017. The list includes some companies that have done relatively little business with the city.
The bribery scandal has become a top issue in the race, and the candidates themselves have begun scouring their rivals’ donor lists and using the information to attack one another.
This week at a public forum, candidate Peter Aman alleged that one-third of the donations collected by councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms came from airport contractors. The AJC/News Lab analysis could not confirm that figure, but found some of the biggest players in airport contracting have thrown support to Bottoms, who has been endorsed by Mayor Reed.
Bottoms, who has been forced to return $25,700 in donations from an airport vendor tainted by the contracting scandal, said she hasn’t counted how much airport money has been given to her campaign, but said “it’s unfortunate that Peter is trying to make the ethical issues surrounding the procurement process my issues when they are not.”
Without naming names, Aman also alleged that his campaign was promised the financial support of some contractors if he agreed to help his “friends” upon taking office. Aman said he declined the offer.
Other candidates, such as Mary Norwood and Ceasar Mitchell, also have received city contractor money, including airport vendors, the analysis found. Aman’s campaign includes a $1 million personal loan and contributions from financial services companies, major corporations and law firms.
There are many reasons companies and individuals contribute to campaigns that have nothing to do with winning contracts or getting public money. Many that do little or no business with the city can be found in the campaign disclosure reports, including Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Cox Enterprises, the parent company of the AJC.
Employees with Cox Enterprises and its subsidiaries donated to most of the major candidates.
Billions in contracts over next four years
The issue of vendors trying to influence the election is important, because for the third time in a generation Atlanta voters will elect a new mayor with a federal bribery investigation hanging over City Hall.
In the current scandal, two contractors have pleaded guilty to bribery and the city’s former purchasing chief, Adam Smith, has admitted to taking $30,000 to influence procurement. Earlier this month, a federal prosecutor said corruption in Atlanta was “prolific.”
The government’s investigation is ongoing, and likely to stretch into the next administration.
Meanwhile, the new mayor will preside over billions of dollars in contracts during the next four years, spreading taxpayer money from airport concourses to MARTA tracks, and hundreds of miles of streets, sidewalks and sewers in between.
Most of the major candidates have used the scandal to take tough stances on procurement reform and ethics, including several calls to halt approval of contracts that expire next year, so they are not awarded until the new administration takes over. But that hasn’t stopped the flow of money from city vendors and contractors.
And that should surprise no one, said Emory University political science professor Michael Leo Owens.
“It’s in their interests to demonstrate some support,” Owens said of city vendors. “In the case of the candidates, every damn dollar matters to them.”
The general election is Nov. 7, and the race is likely headed to a run-off — which will require even more fundraising by the top two finishers.
Spreading money across the board
Some of the city’s largest contractors have given generously, with many of them contributing to multiple candidates.
One of the largest African American owned construction companies in the country, H.J. Russell & Company, has been a player in political campaigns for decades. And this year is no different.
People associated with H.J. Russell and another family company, Concessions International, have spread $23,700 around to eight candidates: Lance Bottoms ($10,100), Mitchell ($4,250), Aman ($2,500), Norwood ($2,500); John Eaves ($2,000); Vincent Fort ($1,250); Kwanza Hall ($1,000); and Cathy Woolard ($100).
Chief executive Michael Russell said the family has “many qualified friends … running for political office this year, which we individually and collectively support.”
“In regard to donations … my siblings and I make our own decisions based upon our own points of view,” Russell said. “Sometimes our company will make contributions. I care strongly about the future of Atlanta. So I believe it is important to participate in civic affairs and the political process.”
Hojeij Branded Foods, which claims on its website to be the “largest operator” of restaurants at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, has provided more than $64,100 to five candidates. Most of the Hojeij family money has been reserved for Bottoms ($40,900) and Mitchell ($13,500), although councilwoman Norwood also received $6,000 and Hall $3,600.
A public relations firm representing Hojeij said none of the family members would answer questions for this story.
The airport money is also flying in from out of town.
Master ConcessionAir, a Miami-based company that owns or operates dozens of restaurants in seven airports, sent all of its money to Bottoms.
Eleven people associated with the company donated a combined $23,525. One of the Master ConcessionAir donors, Pedro Amaro Jr., gave $5,100, according to Bottoms’ campaign disclosures.
Those involved in an earlier incarnation of the company came under federal investigation in 2002 for allegedly receiving $1.7 million from a Miami airport vendor to meet federal minority-business requirements while not actually opening a restaurant. No charges were ever filed in the case. MCA still operates in Miami and now does business at the Atlanta airport.
Messages left for Amaro at the company’s Miami office were not returned. The Atlanta phone number was unable to accept messages.
Developer Egbert Perry’s company, which is in a dispute with the Atlanta Housing Authority over an option to purchase vacant property held by the authority, also donated to multiple candidates.
Employees with Integral Group, including Perry, the CEO, are backing Aman, Eaves, Fort, Hall, Mitchell, Norwood and Woolard for a total of $13,600. The next mayor will make appointments to the AHA board.
Other companies that have contracted with the city and given to multiple candidates include C.D. Moody Construction Co., Heery International, Jacobs Engineering and SD&C Inc., a city sidewalk vendor.
Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, called generous donations from contractors to political campaigns “the foundation of pay to play.”
“It’s something voters should think about,” she said. “Unfortunately, it seems like just another day in Atlanta.”
Norwood, Mitchell top fundraisers
Norwood has consistently led in public polling, but she is second in money raised from outside sources, having collected $1.3 million to Mitchell’s nearly $2 million. Mitchell boosted his total with a $150,000 personal loan to give himself more cash-on-hand down the stretch.
Three of Norwood’s top 10 donors are employees of Atlanta law firms that often provide legal services to the city, including Smith, Gambrell & Russell; Alston & Bird; and King & Spalding.
Norwood also received donations from real estate companies and developers who have an interest in residential and commercial building, and a smattering of construction companies who contract with the city.
About 20 percent of Norwood’s campaign money came from Buckhead zip codes, which is where she lives. She said having concentrated fundraising in Buckhead does not indicate weakness in other parts of the city.
Norwood ran for mayor in 2009, losing to Reed in a razor-thin runoff election.
“Fundraising this time has been extraordinarily difficult for everyone because there have been so many candidates in the race,” Norwood said. “We know that I have strong support in Buckhead. I think it’d be pretty startling if I didn’t have strong support from my home community.”
Mitchell, who paid an $8,000 ethics fine this year for failing to disclose up to $93,000 in expenses during his campaign for council president, has parlayed his long law career into vast support in the legal community.
An attorney at DLA Piper, one of the world’s largest law firms, Mitchell’s campaign has received $28,952 from co-workers at the firm.
Mitchell’s disclosures show at least 495 donations totaling more than $251,637 from people who self-identified as working in the legal profession. He also had 703 contributions for $445,700 from out-of-state donors.
Some of that out-of-state fundraising happened during events in far-flung places like Maine, Colorado, Las Vegas and New Orleans.
“It’s called going to where you know you have relationships,” Mitchell said of his out-of-state travel. “It’s called tapping into those relationships that you have. And that’s what I think I’ve been very successful in doing.”
Aman, Bottoms, Woolard top $1 million
Overall, Aman has raised the most money in the race, thanks to the strength of his personal bank account.
Without the million-dollar loan, Aman’s fundraising would be barely over $1 million and almost exactly on par with Woolard, a former council president and lobbyist.
Aman leaned heavily on his Rolodex of Atlanta’s high-powered CEOs, financial services companies and former colleagues at Bain & Company, the consulting firm where he worked for 30 years. People tied to Bain ponied up $68,583. Those with Cox Enterprises, the parent company of Cox Media Group, which operates the AJC, gave Aman $27,701.
Prior to running for mayor, Aman served as the city’s chief operating officer during the first two years of the Reed administration, and was an advisor to Mayor Shirley Franklin before and after she took office.
Aman is the only candidate to make a loan to his campaign who has pledged to not pay himself back with future fundraising if he wins the election. He said the money he put into his campaign is a dollar-for-dollar match with his supporters’ contributions.
“I’m contributing to my own campaign because I’m trying to keep up with lifelong politicians that have built vast networks of fundraisers,” Aman said. “So whether it’s Mary Norwood or Ceasar Mitchell or Keisha Lance Bottoms, they all have pyramids of contributors.”
Aman also received nearly $6,000 from employees of Equifax, the credit rating agency that suffered an enormous data breach that resulted in the personal information of 140 million Americans being stolen. He returned $3,600 from former CEO Rick Smith after criticism from his opponents.
Bottoms is another candidate who has made loans to her campaign, amounting to $240,000. She downplayed the significance of city contractors in fundraising.
“Contractors, like all citizens, have a right to give,” she said. “I think you have to look at the donations and see if there are any expectations attached to them. This is my fourth election and I’ve never been accused of improprieties. It’s never been a problem.”
Bottoms was the biggest offender when it came to not identifying where her donors work, with employer information missing for about 20 percent of her donors.
While Bottoms’ campaign drew significant support from city vendors, Woolard built her campaign war chest among academics, lawyers, human rights groups and health care professionals.
Woolard’s donor list is heavy with people from Emory University and Georgia State; Grady Health System; people supporting the LBGT community; environmental groups; the health care industry; and a few law firms. Employees with Cox Communications and Cox Automotive, subsidiaries of Cox Enterprises, gave Woolard $13,715.
“We’ve got about 2,400 individual donors,” Woolard said. We’ve been executing on our plan and…we do events every night of the week. That’s where Peter and Keisha are so vulnerable: They’ve got money, but they don’t have (voters) behind it.”
Hall, Fort, Sterling and Eaves
Four candidates have not broken the $1 million mark in their fundraising, and that group is led by councilman Kwanza Hall, with $622,000. Hall has a smattering of contractors in his reports, but by far the largest group of donors identify themselves as retired or self-employed. As of his October disclosure, Hall had $241,000 on hand and he said that’s plenty to finish the race and qualify for the runoff.
“There have been some limitations in terms of the number of available dollars” in the race, Hall said. “I think donors have become extremely fatigued. But we still see a clear path to victory and we’re working day and night.”
Fort, a former state senator, has run a populist, Bernie Sanders-style campaign. In fact, the presidential candidate and Vermont senator has endorsed Fort and held a rally for him in Atlanta.
Candidates are not required to identify donors who give campaigns less than $101, and Fort has a ton of them, which his campaign has valued at a combined $291,407, or about 60 percent of his $481,000 total.
Other candidates have identified those small donors on their reports even though they don’t have to. When asked why he chose not to, Fort said there were simply too many.
“I have almost 10,000 donors, and some of them have given $1, $5 or $10 dollars,” Fort said. “I would be printing a phone book.”
Fort has also drawn heavily from municipal unions and from his former colleagues at the Legislature, including former Gov. Roy Barnes and his law firm for $8,000.
Michael Sterling, an attorney and former director of the city’s workforce development organization, and Eaves, Fulton County Commission chairman, combined have raised less than Fort.
Sixty-four percent of Sterling’s money has come from out of state — his girlfriend is an actress and model in Los Angeles and has helped him raise money there — and includes contributions from lawyers, medical professionals and consultants.
Eaves’ support is largely corporate, from the likes of Delta Air Lines, the Greenberg Traurig law firm and Home Depot.
Eaves was the last candidate in the race, and said his name-recognition will allow him to be competitive with less money.
“When I ran as chairman of Fulton County in 2014, I got 82,000 people in Atlanta to vote for me,” Eaves said. “We think that no more than 80,000 people are going to vote in this race coming up. You’ve got 12 or 13 candidates, and the margin of victory for the second-place winner may be 12,000 votes. We can outperform candidates with $2 million.”
Newsroom data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.
Reporting for this story began when journalists at the Georgia News Lab, an investigative reporting partnership with Kennesaw State University, the AJC and Channel 2 Action News, sought to digitize campaign contribution reports from the candidates running for Atlanta mayor. News Lab students first attempted to obtain digital reports from the private vendor paid by the city to maintain the data, and had to seek help from the Attorney General’s office when the vendor declined to provide them. In the end, students had to work off of PDFs and convert them to a data set that could be searched an analyzed. AJC data specialist Jeff Ernsthausen helped clean and prepare the data for analysis, along with help from data specialist Jennifer Peebles. AJC investigative reporter Dan Klepal interviewed candidates about the reports, along with students when possible. AJC reporter J. Scott Trubey also assisted with the reporting, and Klepal wrote the story. News Lab journalists helping with the story were: Ryan Basden (Kennesaw State University); Avery Braxton (Mercer University); Jenna Adalane Eason (Mercer); Hannah Greco (Georgia State University); Nate Harris (University of Georgia); Victoria Knight (UGA, graduate student); Ayron Lewallen (Morehouse College); Christina Maxouris (GSU); Michael Cornell Mays (GSU); Chad Rhym (Morehouse); Naomi Thomas (UGA, graduate student); Dominique Times (GSU); Savannah West-Calhoun (Clark Atlanta University); Harrison Young(UGA).