The GBI criminal investigation into open records violations at Atlanta City Hall now includes records associated with former Mayor Kasim Reed’s communications director and the mayor himself, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have learned.
On Friday, the GBI informed lawyers for the AJC and Channel 2 it wants records detailing how the city responded to an AJC request for Reed’s city-issued credit card statements, along with text messages by Anne Torres, Reed’s top spokeswoman, in which she pressured officials to delay the release of public documents.
The GBI’s probe began with a review of texts from Reed’s former press secretary Jenna Garland that showed she directed another city employee to delay a Channel 2 request for the water billing records of public officials.
The GBI’s latest request for records, delivered to an AJC/Channel 2 attorney, suggests that agents now have questions about Torres, and any involvement by the mayor in the AJC’s request for his credit card statements.
The AJC received the statements March 19, seven weeks after requesting them — and a week after Reed reimbursed the city $12,000 for personal expenditures made on his card. In a statement, Reed said he had already begun reviewing his charges and that his reimbursement had no connection to the AJC’s request for the records.
In a letter dated Friday, GBI Special Agent Clinton Thomas said investigators also want documents related to the AJC and Channel 2’s request for records detailing hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses paid by Reed to city workers before the end of last year, and documents associated with requests for Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard’s city credit card records.
The city doled out more than $811,000 in bonuses to employees in late December, including tens of thousands awarded to winners of raffles and ugly sweater and lip sync contests. The bonuses roiled City Hall, with at least six senior staffers deciding to return the money, including police chief Erika Shields.
Thomas said the GBI wants records of any communication that “establishes a timeline of an open records request … in which the response or fulfillment of the request was determined to be stalled or the provided records were misleading, incomplete or altered from their original form.”
State law mandates that government officials provide responsive documents within three business days of a request if they are available. Obstructing or “frustrating” the release of documents is explicitly prohibited and punishable as a misdemeanor.
Greg Lisby, Georgia State University professor of communication who teaches communication law, said the GBI “cast a very broad net” with this request.
“I was very pleased when I read it, because it seems to me they’re taking this very seriously,” he said.
Sunshine laws help the public and media hold government leaders and agencies accountable for their actions.
Investigations by the AJC and Channel 2 have exposed a culture within the Reed administration to release public information on timetables of their choosing, not those set by state law. The reporting spurred the GBI to open a criminal investigation in March.
Last month, the AJC and Channel 2 reported messages that showed Torres pressured Atlanta Beltline CEO Brian McGowan to ignore advice from the agency’s lead lawyer to comply with a request for a copy of McGowan’s employment contract, with Torres even issuing a veiled threat to involve Reed.
“We can hold whatever we want for as long as we want,” Torres wrote McGowan in a text last September.
But McGowan and Beltline General Counsel Nina Hickson resisted Torres’ pressure, and ultimately prevailed and released the records in a timely manner.
The GBI’s interest in Reed’s purchasing card is focused on the AJC/Channel 2 request for the credit card statements and on potential violations of the Georgia Open Records Act. A federal grand jury, meanwhile, requested Reed’s credit card spending records as part of its corruption probe of Atlanta City Hall.
GBI interviews council members
In April, the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with state Attorney General Chris Carr’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests at City Hall.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Reed’s successor, said in her State of the City address on Wednesday the city “will repair the trust” of residents in their government.
Bottoms said the city will create a position she called “an open records custodian” to manage fulfillment of records requests, something akin to what the AJC and Channel 2 requested of the city in the complaint to Carr.
A spokesman for Bottoms said the GBI has requested “some phone numbers, open records policies and water system billing records.” He said Councilwoman Cleta Winslow and Councilman Ivory Young have been interviewed by the GBI.
Council President Felicia Moore confirmed to the AJC that she also has been interviewed.
Contacted Friday, Torres deferred to her prior statement on the matter, in which she called her texts “inter-employee banter.”
Lisby applauded the GBI for investigating what he described as a pattern of misconduct in the city’s law and communications departments. But he said Friday’s request suggests the GBI isn’t buying Torres’ explanation.
“This idea the city of Atlanta employees were just having a fun time with their day, that’s baloney,” Lisby said.