In Atlanta mayoral race, corruption has become a must-discuss issue

E.R. Mitchell Jr. leaves the federal courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Oct. 10. Mitchell, a politically connected Atlanta contractor and the federal government’s star witness in its long-running bribery investigation, was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the massive pay-to-play scandal. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

They weren’t necessarily close, but eight years ago, the relationship between Kasim Reed and Peter Aman might have been described as amicable.

As mayor-elect of Atlanta, Reed named the business consultant as his chief operating officer. Three years later, the pair were still tight enough for the mayor to pitch Aman as a Democratic candidate to replace U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

That was then.

Now, Aman is one of many, many candidates in the Atlanta mayoral campaign trying to make it into a runoff on Nov. 7 – but in a way that has ticked off the exiting Reed.

A few days ago, Aman told a Journal-Constitution reporter that, at the outset of his first-time candidacy, he had been assured that city contractors would contribute to his campaign if, as mayor, he took care of his “friends.”

Aman named no names, offered no details.

Even so, Reed decided that Aman was talking about him. “Peter Aman’s comments are untrue and unfortunate,” said a mayoral spokesman in a lengthy defense of his boss. The spokesman accused Aman of choosing “to peddle rumors and false comments about Mayor Reed, who is not running for re-election and is not his opponent.”

The mayoral spokesman accused Aman of spite. Only a week earlier, Reed had endorsed one of Aman’s rivals, Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms.

But even supposing the mayor (and his staff) is right, it’s possible for a human being to possess multiple motives. One day before Reed endorsed Bottoms, two contractors who admitted last winter to paying bribes to win city of Atlanta contracts were sentenced to prison by a federal judge.

“This year has brought into clear focus that corruption in the city of Atlanta is prolific,” Jeff Davis, assistant U.S. attorney, told the judge. Last month, the city’s former top purchasing officer pleaded guilty to accepting more than $30,000 in bribes.

Here’s the part where we emphasize that Reed has been implicated in none of this.

And since the mayor has accused this newspaper of attempting “to tarnish a successful administration,” we will eagerly concede the items in his win column: Midtown is booming, and relations with the state Capitol have never been better. The annexation of Emory University and adjacent properties, once accomplished, will have a historic impact.

But clearly, like many mayors before him, he has been unable to erase City Hall’s pay-to-play culture. (And yes, the same culture exists in many other corners of Georgia.)

The situation — not spite — has required every candidate who would be the next mayor of Atlanta to respond. Every candidate.

I ran into six of them last Wednesday night, and they told me so.

We were all at North Atlanta High School for a forum sponsored by the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. I presented the candidates with Aman’s remarks, and asked each to respond – inviting them to point out any exaggerations or red herrings. We began with Aman.

“Not everybody is corrupt — far from it,” Aman said. “But we do have a culture of corruption that has permeated the city. Somewhere, we got off track.”

He promised a “maniacal” focus on ethics. “We’re going to audio record conversations between vendors and procurement officials, so we can understand what’s going on,” Aman said.

Bottoms, the mayor’s choice to replace him, spoke next. It was, she said, “extremely unfortunate that we have a few bad apples in the city. It creates a cloud of suspicion over the entire city government.”

Like many others, she called for an audit of the city procurement process. “Whether it begins now or it begins in January, it needs to begin soon,” Bottoms said. Ranking City Hall officials, she suggested, should be required to file their personal income tax returns along with already-required disclosures of their financial holdings.

Councilman Kwanza Hall said accounts he has read and seen about City Hall so far “makes it seem like racketeering.”

“There are a lot of organizations, companies, that have been at the public trough for ‘way too long,” Hall said. “They’ve been in there, receiving contracts – 30, 40, 50 years, if not longer. We may even know some of them. But it has to turn over. It’s a small group of people who are on the list, and they stay on the list.”

Cathy Woolard, the former city council president, spoke of corruption as a long-running condition. “This isn’t the first, second or third problem we’ve had at City Hall. So it’s time now to do something different,” she said.

But Woolard also was critical of Aman’s decision to discuss the pay-to-play advice he’d been given with the press. “My first call would have been to the FBI or the U.S. attorney’s office,” she said. “My second call would have been to make an appointment with those folks with a wire on, so we could have a better conversation.”

(Aman’s rebuttal: “I was offered nothing. In fact, it was a conversation where someone was explaining to me as a first-time candidate how the world works. Sort of like the birds and bees.”)

Councilwoman Mary Norwood, still the frontrunner in polls, spoke of past attempts to overhaul the city’s contracting system – and of current events.

“We have the Department of Justice at City Hall. The FBI is at City Hall. And from what I’ve heard, the IRS criminal division is at City Hall,” said Norwood, adding that the feds will decide what comes next.

In the meantime, Norwood declared an appetite for distance. “I have not offered opinions, or gossip, or thoughts about this. Or suggestions as to what I think may be going on,” she said. “I have never been approached. I’m in the legislative body. I’m not part of the administration.”

Council President Ceasar Mitchell brought up the rear. “You all know – it’s been highly publicized in the news – that I called for a moratorium on all non-emergency contracts that don’t expire this year.” He said it sends the wrong message to the public – and to agencies like the FBI.

Mitchell has tangled with Reed over the issue. The council president noted that his position (though not his candidacy) was recently endorsed by former mayor Shirley Franklin.

Please note that throughout this episode, none of the candidates mentioned the name of Kasim Reed, or implied he had a role in the ongoing misconduct.

Our discussion on ethics was followed by something lighter. I asked each of the six to name the two mayors of Atlanta they would try to emulate should they win.

Out of a 12-vote total, Franklin got five endorsements. Maynard Jackson, four. Sam Massell, Ivan Allen, and Andrew Young received one vote each.

Again, no one mentioned Kasim Reed’s name. Not even Bottoms.

I didn’t ask why. My guess is that each candidate made the same calculation. Reed has become the face of a City Hall that, until these investigations are over, isn’t in control of its own future.

Fair or not, he has come to represent the uncertainty that stands between an entire field of mayoral candidates and the likely Dec. 5 runoff that will end the contest.

Click here to watch the Wednesday mayoral forum at North Atlanta High School.

Postscript: The six participants in the Wednesday forum were selected on the basis of fundraising totals as of Sept. 30. The next day I was able to connect with two more candidates.

Former state senator Vincent Fort asserted that he was talking about City Hall’s “culture of corruption” long before the rest of the field, and finds it hard to believe city council members who profess ignorance. “It’s just unimaginable to me that they don’t know what’s going on,” Fort said. “It’s pervasive, and there are a lot of pay-to-play issues going on. And not just in contracts.”

On the topic of corruption, former Fulton County Commission chairman John Eaves — like Woolard — targeted Aman: “It’s systemic and it dates back years. Anyone connected to senior leadership in the city is accoutable — this includes City Council and certainly Peter Aman. You can’t claim as your sole source of connectivity and experience to be the only candidate who has ‘run city government’ but run from the corruption …that was happening on your watch.”

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9 comments
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