ATL concessions: Common Cause in hot seat for its watchdog role over contracts

By David Pendered

In less than seven months, Common Cause of Georgia went from being ignored on the steps of Atlanta City Hall to being challenged in the hot seat of the council’s Chamber over its role in the debate over $3 billion worth of airport concessions contracts.

Mayor Kasim Reed said the organization “stinks.” Councilmember H. Lamar Willis said it promotes a political campaign system that “reserves political office for the aristocracy of America.”

William Perry, the group’s executive director, responded from the hot seat: “If you don’t like the message, attack the messenger.”

Common Cause has taken a leading role as watchdog in calling for full transparency by the city in its handling of airport concessions contracts. To that message, Common Cause has melded its three-year push for the city to reform its campaign finance regulations – including a limit of $250 per election cycle to any person or business with a city contract.

William Perry, executive director, Common Cause of Georgia

William Perry, executive director, Common Cause of Georgia

The city declined to comply with the transparency requests from Common Cause, private citizens and a business that sued in Fulton County Superior Court. Atlanta officials contended that the contract process cannot be opened for review, according to the state’s Open Records Law.

The city lost one battle Wednesday, when Fulton Superior Court Senior Judge Cynthia Wright ordered the mayor not to sign for 30 days a contract for a foreign currency exchange business pending the review of city records involving the award of that contract.

This isn’t the first time Reed has dismissed requests from Common Cause.

When Reed was raising campaign funds in the 2009 election, Reed declined to support the group’s proposed ban on pay-to-play, according to Emmet Bondurant, a state director of the group.

“When Reed was running with the other three candidates, we proposed a pay-to-play ordinance that we presented to all four candidates and all four refused, Bondurant said in June 2011.

“All four candidates solicited and received contributions from, and frankly their primary source of contributions were from, people doing business with the city, or people who wanted to do business with the city,” Bondurant said. “Our position was that people doing business with the city, and prospective bidders, are not contributing to campaigns out of city pride … but out of thinking that they will get a benefit or that someone is going to retaliate against them.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

Reed contends that he is a strong advocate of ethics reform. Reed also contends that campaign contributions are an essential part of a fair electoral process.

Common Cause started its effort on June 8, with a media event on the steps leading to the old City Hall. There were indications that someone from Reed’s office, perhaps the mayor himself, would attend and make a few comments. That did not happen.

Common Cause board member Kirwin Swint, a professor at Kennesaw State University, released his white paper that outlined 30 years of corrupt airport contracts that were awarded to political friends and campaign contributors of elected city officials. The paper did not fault Reed in any way, but it did note that Reed had raised more than $3 million for his 2009 mayoral campaign in a system that has not been changed significantly in 30 years.

Reed responded with a statement has he is a champion of ethics reform, but believes that: “without campaign contributions, candidates who are not wealthy would never be able to spend the time required to meet voters, communicate their ideas or develop their platforms.”

During the Jan. 3 council meeting, Willis took a similar tact with Perry – contending that campaign finance reform would limit the pool of candidates to the wealthy class.

Atlanta City Councilmember H. Lamar Willis

Atlanta City Councilmember H. Lamar Willis

“You’re saying that people who should run for office come from some aristocratic level,” Willis said, adding that some people are poor and can offer only their vote while others can contribute money but cannot vote for a candidate.

“Guess what – if I’m Michael Bloomberg, or Jon Corzine, or Cliff Oxford in Georgia [unintelligible remarks] it reserves political office for the aristocracy of America.”

Willis asked Perry to address the issue of diversity on the board of Common Cause.

Willis asked for the number of African Americans, Asians, Latinos, female, and openly gay members. Willis asked for the number of Republicans and Democrats. Willis asked if background checks and financial investigations were conducted of board members.

Perry said the incoming board has 21 members, comprised of five women, one African American, “and the rest are white males.” Perry estimated that six to seven board members are Republicans and the rest are Democrats. Perry said he personally campaigned for Cathy Woolard, an openly gay member of the Atlanta City Council who later was elected citywide as council president. Perry said background checks are not conducted of Common Cause board members.

“So that’s one African American. Let’s move up in the world,” Willis said before turning to the lack of financial investigations into board members:

“So, that’s kind of troubling for me. Because I would think that a board that wants to talk about clean hands would want to make sure it’s hands are absolutely clean…. People who throw their stones sometimes like to hide their hands.”

Perry responded: “If you don’t like the message, attack the messenger.”

Willis responded: I’m not attacking the messenger. I’m attacking the body.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

6 replies
  1. VHighlands says:

    Where was Common Cause when Nathan Deal accepted over $100,000 in obviously illegal campaign contributions? They ignored that, but challenge Kasim Reed on contributions that are legally sound.

    Where was Common Cause when House Speaker Ralston, his chief of staff and their families went on a $17,000 all expense paid vacation to Europe on the dime of a passenger rail lobbyist?

    Where was Common Cause when Lt. Governor Casey Cagle accepted $5,000 golf outings and thousands and thousands of dollars from lobbyists representing CTCA?

    David, if I didn’t know better I’d swear you were doing someone elses bidding on this issue. However, I”m sure your impeccable integrity wouldn’t allow for such an occurrence. You’ve taken a dubious posture, sir.

    I find it interesting that Common Cause continues to get this kind of media coverage despite the fact that they have failed to provide any basis for their allegations. No evidence whatsoever. Moreover, Mr. Perry can’t deny that he has accepted the same campaign contributions that he so vehemently fights against when it comes to the City of Atlanta. He’s a shameless self-promoter, angling for another run at office.

    If you were what you claim to be, Mr. Pendered, you’d be calling out this farce not promoting it. If Common Cause was a real watchdog and not a front organization, they’d do some sniffing over at the Gold Dome. There’s a potent stench coming from that side of the street and evidence to support claims of corruption.Report

    Reply
    • MidtownMary says:

      William Perry is a new executive Director, and has new and more media savvy board leaders and members. Common Cause didn’t ignore those other issues, they just didn’t get media publicity or have as organized and sophisticated team as they do now that they are getting deserved attention. Common Cause is a non-profit organization- and THEY don’t award billion dollar contracts. They protect the ordinary citizens that pay the taxes that pay these politicians that DO award these contracts.They just watch out for us taxpaying citizens to make sure politicians are on the up and up. Mayor Reed, “thou dost protest too much”. You are way too angry about this to look innocent. And for Councilman Willis, the race card is really old and tired in Atlanta- which has a majority of African American Leaders (and not enough hispanics or women) working for the city either. @VHighlandsReport

      Reply
  2. 2 Peter 2 19 says:

    VHighlands. Thank you Mayor Reed For and or Staff for your comments. It is too bad that everyone, including you and your puppets are trying to throw the transparency debate off the table by attacking this William Perry guy and his group. There are thousands and thousands of Atlanta residents that have nothing to do with any watchdog group that are concerned about transparency and even corruption in this process. There is something very odd about how your focus is on the watch dog group and not the people’s concerns.

    Here are some red flags for me:

    1. Why did Mayor Reed get up out of order and interject when Counsel Member Yolanda Adrean asked who was behind the companies? Is there something to hide? I would venture to say so.

    2. How much tax payer money did Mayor Reed spend to produce the 20 or so four foot long presentation boards (produced to smear the watch dog group) that were fit for a major criminal trial? Speaking of which -were never even used. Furthermore, how much did Mayor reed spend on the packets that were made for counsel? Is that actually what was talked about during the Executive Session rather than the details of the scoring- etc.?

    3. Why is Mayor Reed so angry and defensive? This has nothing to do with Common Cause. It has everything to do with favoritism and political insiders.

    4. Why wouldn’t the City Attorney allow the public to hear the reasoning of how a small local company (politically connected) could out score a large billion dollar company on financial capability.

    5. Lastly, the post above is the biggest red flag yet. There have been a lot of posts on sites like Creative Loafing that would suggest the mayor’s staff members have been hitting the blogs. However, this one, which is filled with detail of an Expert and mirrors our Mayor’s vocabulary is quite haunting. Furthermore, I am blown away that Mr. Pendered, who has been an Atlanta journalist for 30 years, has been accused of taking a dubious posture. This all goes back to the VERY APPARENT effort of the Mayor to shift the focus off of the administration and onto something else. THIS IS POLITICS AND LAW 101. It just so happens that our Mayor is a lawyer and a politician- he unbelievable at both.

    I really hope this gets more attention from other organizations and or entities so the Mayor will have to mount smear campaigns against multiple entities at once. I am just wondering what the mayor has to say about the Fulton County Tax Payer’s Association. Why hasn’t he smeared them yet? Aren’t they saying the exact same thing?

    This is all VERY FISHY and the STENCH is coming from City Hall!

    Report

    Reply
  3. J1954 says:

    Very well said 2 Peter 2 19. I agree completely and so do the millions of people who have been following the process for the last year or so, infact over the past decade+ with all the other airport scandals in Atlanta.

    Bottom line is the entire process was rigged and favored the politically and financially connected insiders who won unfairly and again BS’ed the entire city. And this entire sham of how they want to give “local, small businesses and NEW people a chance” to win the smaller packages (6-9) is complete crap. As the individuals masked behind the winning LLC’s have been in the airport for YEARS and all are connected to the airport and Atlanta government. So, its unfortunate that no one is stepping forward with the proof to put these guys inside.Report

    Reply

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