You can call them smoking guns. Or steaming communications.
But the text messages from former Mayor Kasim Reed’s press secretary Jenna Garland to a city watershed official sure look damning. And now the GBI is investigating the matter to see how badly Garland (or perhaps others at City Hall) thumbed her or their noses at state open records laws.
Last March, Channel 2 Action News was sniffing around to see whether city officials (or family members) were not paying their water bills. The request started with Reed, who it turns out had paid, and his brother, Tracy, who owned a rental house that was waaaaayyy behind, and then expanded to City Council members.
Garland sent texts to the water official, telling her:
A) “Be as unhelpful as possible.”
B) “Drag this out as long as possible.”
C) “Provide information in the most confusing format available.”
D) All of the above.
The correct answer is D.
It seems Garland, a pleasant and often helpful lady, was sticking her thumb in the public’s eye when it came to disbursing information.
Now, one can wonder why someone several notches down the org chart would take it upon herself to thwart the release of such info:
A) She was going rogue in an effort to suppress embarrassing details.
B) She was worried about Hizzoner’s health and temperament, knowing that such media requests might cause the back of his head to explode.
C) She was abiding by the standard operating procedure of an office that employed a strategy known as P.O.O. — Prevaricate, Obfuscate and Obstruct.
D) All of the above.
One can argue that, again, the answer might be D. The Georgia attorney general’s office and its investigative arm, the GBI, will determine that.
No one really was shocked by the disclosure.
City Council President Felicia Moore has long criticized Reed concerning his inclination to treat City Council members and the public like mushrooms — you know, keep ‘em in the dark and cover them with P.O.O.
Moore was surprised by the texts. Not by their content, though. “I was surprised you’d be able to see them,” she said.
Garland’s texts are like an assistant football coach mistakenly leaving the team’s playbook in a bathroom.
The attorney general apparently watches TV and reads the newspaper because his office called in the GBI to determine whether any criminal violations of the state’s open records laws had occurred. The investigation is apparently the first such probe ever conducted since violations of the state’s sunshine laws became criminal offenses in 2012. Misdemeanor criminal offenses, that is.
My guess was they jumped on this because not often is such a slam-dunk dropped in investigators’ laps. It is not known whether others could get swept up in this.
I couldn’t get a hold of Garland, who is now in private practice. And Reed declined to comment, although he has spilled much ink complaining that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 are out to get him.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office said in an email, “The Administration remains committed to transparency and full compliance with the spirit and letter of the Open Records Act.”
The GBI’s probe has expanded to the city’s law department and purported legal invoices it supplied last fall to the AJC. Two AJC reporters were interviewed by the GBI about their interactions with the city’s attorney, Jeremy Berry.
Last year, the city gave documents to the AJC that it said were legal bills it incurred from an outside law firm while responding to the ongoing federal bribery investigation at City Hall.
But this year, AJC reporters Stephen Deere and Dan Klepal were given different — but eerily similar — records from the city. A recent AJC article put it this way: Atlanta officials hid legal billing records for the bribery investigation in the account of a different case and directed the creation of new documents resembling invoices to satisfy the AJC’s records request.
In an email, Berry wrote: “I have remained steadfastly committed to the Open Records Act and the need for transparency,” adding, “The information that I produced was responsive to what the AJC sought and consistent with the law.”
Richard Belcher, the Channel 2 veteran sleuth who started this mess, has likened getting information from City Hall to “pushing a boulder up a hill every day.”
“Too many times in the past (the lack of response) seemed intentional,” he told me. “And at least one time, it was intentional.”
He lauded the former water department employee, Lillian Govus, who came forward with the texts. Too often, people involved with government — even if they are retired and “safe” from retaliation — are unwilling to step forward.
Belcher said the city also last year stalled unceasingly in providing records of when Reed and his team flew to South Africa and spent almost $90,000, with most of them flying in luxury.
Belcher’s ardent rival, Fox 5’s Dale Russell, last week went on TV with a story about his own troubles getting records from the city. It was pretty much a public plea for the GBI to come talk with him, too.
I called Richard Griffiths, a retired journalist and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. He said it’s hard enough for big media companies to battle and get records from antagonistic public officials.
“But it becomes really hard for small organizations to fight back against those who don’t want to play nice by the rules,” he said. “I want to give (government officials) the benefit of the doubt. I want to hope for the best. But I keep getting disappointed.”
Sara Henderson, director of Common Cause, said the good-governance group tries to get members to write letters to the editor or go public and apply pressure on government officials when they fall short on providing records.
She said the strategy is to let government officials know people are paying attention.
And it might embarrass them into doing the right thing, although I have learned that many aren’t capable of embarrassment.
Henderson said she is happy that the GBI is looking into this.
“Hopefully it makes an example that you can’t do this to the public,” she said.
One can always hope.