A surprise visit by two Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents to Atlanta City Hall on Wednesday created chaos, as rumors of a raid spread quickly through a building reeling from federal subpoenas and allegations of bribes, nepotism, improper credit card spending and excessive bonuses involving the previous administration.
The agents, who are investigating the city for violations of the Georgia Open Records Act, arrived at City Hall without a search warrant. They appeared to leave empty handed.
“GBI agents came to City Hall today to coordinate meetings with city employees,” a city spokesperson said in a statement. “The agents did not retrieve any documents or conduct any interviews.”
But a GBI spokesperson in a text message said the agency had conducted interviews and was “attempting to collect records.”
The GBI began investigating City Hall for violations of the open records law last month after reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 about texts between former Mayor Kasim Reed’s press secretary, Jenna Garland, and a Watershed Department staffer. In the messages, Garland directed the Watershed Department spokesperson to drag out the response to records request for as long as possible and to provide the information in the most confusing format.
The two news organizations also reported on purported legal invoices City Attorney Jeremy Berry supplied the AJC that weren’t actual invoices.
At around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, members of the Atlanta City Council Finance/Executive Committee were discussing bonuses doled out, perhaps illegally, to select employees by Reed when some audience members began receiving messages on their phones.
City Council President Felicia Moore suddenly inquired about the whereabouts of City Attorney Jeremy Berry.
When an assistant city attorney said Berry was in another meeting, Moore read the first paragraph of a breaking news story published online. It erroneously stated that GBI agents were seizing items from Berry’s office and that Berry had fled the building.
The report prompted Chief of Staff Marva Lewis and Chief of Operations Richard Cox to leave the meeting and head up to fifth floor of City Hall and disappear inside the Law Department’s offices.
In response to a question about what the agency was doing at City Hall, a GBI spokesperson issued a statement that said: “The GBI is conducting numerous interviews and collecting documents as it pertains to the ongoing investigation requested by the Attorney General’s Office into the open records request violations by the City of Atlanta.”
After about 30 minutes, two GBI agents emerged from the Law Department. They did not appear to be carrying documents. In March, two GBI agents interviewed reporters at the AJC and Channel 2 Action News. Two different agents arrived at City Hall on Wednesday.
Lewis said at a press conference that the agents showed up unannounced at the city’s Watershed Department and were then directed to the Law Department.
Earlier this week, the city announced it had hired two former Georgia attorneys general, Sam Olens and Thurburt Baker, to represent it in a civil complaint filed by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News and in the GBI’s criminal probe.
Both are known for advocating for the right to access public records
Initially, attorney Robert Highsmith was retained by the city the day the Georgia Bureau Investigation started a criminal investigation into the text messages.
On Monday, Highsmith said that his representation of the city lasted only eight business days and that he had turned over a report to the GBI on March 22.
According to Highsmith, the report concluded that no city employee, including Berry, the official who hired him, violated the Georgia Open Records Act.
“Specifically, the city attorney, Jeremy Berry, had done absolutely nothing wrong in connection with his compliance with open records requests,” Highsmith said.
BEING TRANSPARENT WITH READERS
Staff writers Stephen Deere and J. Scott Trubey are named in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2’s complaint to Attorney General Chris Carr, which details examples of the city’s failure to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act. Separately, Deere was interviewed by GBI agents in March about his experiences dealing with City Hall on open records matters as part of the state’s criminal investigation.
The story so far
On March 13, the GBI opened a criminal investigation into the city of Atlanta’s handling of open records requests after stories reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.
On March 22, the city’s outside legal counsel submitted a report to the GBI that cleared city employees of any wrongdoing.
On Wednesday, two GBI agents entered City Hall as part of the agency’s criminal probe. A GBI spokeswoman said the agents conducted interviews and were seeking documents, but a city spokesperson said no documents were obtain and no interviews were conducted.