Transparency or publicity stunt? Atlanta’s City Hall filled a room with 1.47 million papers related to bribery case

City Hall doesn’t make it easy to see the forest for the dead trees
Atlanta City Hall bribery documents

Photograph by Scott Henry

It’s difficult to know quite what to make of Thursday morning’s release by Mayor Kasim Reed of 1.47 million pages of documents relating to the federal bribery investigation involving unnamed city employees. Was it, as Reed declared to a large assemblage of reporters and bloggers, a sincere show of transparency by his administration? Or, as former DeKalb County district attorney J. Tom Morgan opined to WABE, a “publicity stunt?”

As the mayor stood at his podium in front of a wall of file boxes—with hundreds more stacked on tables around the room—it’s hard not to believe the display was substantially for show. Reed even acknowledged, when asked about the boxes stacked behind him, that they’d been positioned there “for the visual.”

“But they’re all real,” he added.

They’re real, all right. Each legal-size file box—city officials couldn’t say how many there were, but a quick survey suggested 300 to 400—is filled with emails, contracts, memos, and other papers, all freshly printed and carefully separated with blank blue or green pages. Except for a row of boxes with labels indicating they contain documents related to ex-city employee Mitzi Bickers, none of the boxes are labeled or in any obvious sequence. (Bickers, a former Atlanta school board member and longtime campaign consultant, worked at City Hall as director of human services from 2010 to 2013.)

Inside many boxes were hundreds of blank pages of paper—a city staffer says they were empty cells from spreadsheets—or sheets with barely legible type. A Reed spokeswoman says the city is working with the third-party vendor that compiled the documents to fix the issue.

Atlanta City Hall bribery documents

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

Nearly all of the local news media was represented in the old council chambers in the City Hall tower, with some reporters apparently camped out for the day with their laptops. Around 2 p.m., teams of reporters were firmly settled in, eating sandwiches as they pored over pages and fed documents into portable scanners. The AJC alone had a handful of newsgatherers ready to file frequent updates, but it’s tough to imagine anyone actually finding a needle in this haystack. Even if you knew exactly what document you wanted, diving randomly into a roomful of boxes seems a fool’s errand.

In other words, despite the assurances of transparency, the mayor’s flamboyant document dump will likely have the same effect of a maneuver intended to continue stonewalling the press; before he announced the document release, the city had attempted to deny open records requests related to the bribery case. City officials said they didn’t know how much the city had spent on printing and boxing up the papers, but if you go by the 10-cents-a-page copying fee that governments typically charge for documents, it would’ve run close to $150,000, not counting the man-hours.

Atlanta City Hall bribery documents

Photograph by Scott Henry

Atlanta City Hall bribery documents

Photograph by Scott Henry

Since we probably won’t learn much anytime soon from Thursday’s release of dead trees, let’s recap what we do know about the growing bribery scandal. In mid-January, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta announced that, as the result of a federal investigation of corruption occurring between 2010 and 2015, Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., a well-known government contractor, would plead guilty to spending $1 million in bribes to city employees to secure municipal contracts. Just this Wednesday, another local contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., also was arrested on charges of bribing public officials. According to WSB-TV, Richards posted bond but has not commented on the charges.

Bickers, who has not publicly commented on the probe, has been linked to the scandal because she had once worked for a company owned by Mitchell—and because a man who once worked for a company owned by Bickers admitted to the FBI that he threw a brick through Mitchell’s window in September 2015. Written on the brick was the message, “Shut Up ER. Keep your mouth shut!!!”—an apparent warning not to cooperate with the feds.

Bickers, whose job duties under Reed often involved rounding up crowds for public events, did not have the authority to approve city contracts. That means the feds likely have their eyes on at least one other city employee who did have that power. During Thursday’s press conference, the mayor conceded that city may need to revisit the procedures for “emergency procurement,” a legal designation under which the granting of a contract can circumvent the usual weeks-long bidding process. If a contract is officially labeled an emergency, it can be awarded by the relevant department head or manager to a contractor on a pre-approved list of vendors.

Although Mitchell had obtained some city contracts on an emergency basis, it’s as yet unknown which jobs might have been steered to him through corruption.

Reed told reporters he was “very angry and frustrated that this has happened on my watch” and that he was cooperating with federal investigators’ efforts to bring corrupt officials to justice.

Update 2/10/17: The original story said the blank pages were spreadsheets with redacted information. A city staffer says the blank pages are empty cells of spreadsheets.