The City of Atlanta’s main corruption investigation agency is seeking to raise its public profile and attract more tips to head off more problems.
After six years investigating corruption in New York City government, Shannon K. Manigault came to Atlanta in 2020 as the City’s first-ever inspector general – heading an office created in the wake of bribery cases in the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed.
“The office was born in the aftermath of the City Hall corruption scandal, where members of the highest levels of the administration were engaged in self-dealing as opposed to serving the public as they were required to do,” said Manigault in a recent phone interview. “…So it was a no-brainer for me to be able to come and help build this office and this program and this function to better serve the citizens of Atlanta.”
Two-and-a-half years later, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has launched a publicity campaign called “Eyes on ATL” to raise its profile and solicit tips on City Hall fraud, waste and abuse. The effort also coincides with a recent rearrangement that removed the Ethics Office from OIG’s control amid discussion of conflicts and funding. Manigault says the cost of the PR campaign – up to $120,000 paid to an outside firm – will more than pay for itself in losses prevented or recouped.
The publicity also helps to explain the somewhat complicated and overlapping realms of City corruption-investigation agencies and practices, which can confuse even those of us who spend time pursuing scandals.
Many major cities have an anti-corruption department, but Atlanta was not among them up to the time of the bribery scandal that began rocking City Hall in 2017 when federal prosecutions were announced. In 2019, a City-created “Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust” recommended various reforms, including the OIG, which began work in 2020.
Today, OIG has two divisions. The Compliance division investigates allegations of fraud, waste and abuse in City government. Independent Procurement Review audits all City solicitations – meaning contract bidding – that amount to more than $1 million. Both divisions’ scrutiny applies to everyone directly involved in government, such as elected officials, staff and private contractors.
The mission includes proactive investigation and responding to tips to restore public trust, recover losses and serve as a deterrent to corruption and misconduct.
“It’s like a kid in a candy store,” says Manigault. “If you have the proprietor of the candy store sitting behind an open newspaper not paying attention, that kid teetering on the brink of stuffing their pockets might do it because they think they can get away with it. … [We say,] ‘No, we are the proprietor of the candy store sitting on the stool fully attentive, with security cameras, with a junior staff person constantly looking around as he or she is polishing the shelves.”
A Harvard Law School grad, Manigault is experienced with such work. She previously served as an inspector general within New York City’s Department of Investigations. She was on a team that reviewed that city’s fire, taxi, sanitation and emergency services departments, as well as a conflict-of-interest board.
She worked on New York corruption cases involving a variety of tactics. In one case, taxi drivers were caught illegally tacking on false toll charges for bridge and tunnel crossings that never happened, an investigation involving data analysis to prove the crimes. In another case, investigators used surveillance and undercover agents to catch sanitation workers taking bribes to illegally dispose of commercial waste.
Manigault says there are three aspects of the Atlanta OIG’s work. Investigation is “what everyone thinks of first,” she says, “but we also try as much as possible to engage in prevention through education and also recommendations.”
“Anti-corruption training” is part of the educational component. “That serves on some level as level-setting, making sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of what should and shouldn’t be done,” says Manigault. While not committing major crimes should be obvious, Manigault says, it can be easy for a culture of corruption to arise where people think, “Hey, maybe it’s not a big deal for me to ask a member of the public for money in order to part of my City duty.”
The training covers common issues and emphasizes that “it’s not enough for them to do the right thing…” says Manigault. “That’s the start… It’s really incumbent on them to report issues if they see anyone else doing the wrong thing, and that is very much a part of their City service.” Another message is that reporting corruption or abuse is “self-protection” if a scandal comes along.
Recommendations cover policy and procedure changes to prevent future problems. They can come even if an investigation finds no wrongdoing happened yet. As a simple example, Manigault says an investigation might find an employee innocent of an allegation they stole from a supply closet – but also recommend installing a lock on the door to prevent such thefts.
When problems are found, OIG can issue a public report and, depending on the nature of the problem, report someone to a supervisor or give the case to a prosecutor for criminal charges.
The City has other agencies whose work can uncover misconduct and abuse: the Ethics Office, the City Auditor’s Office, and the Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) Office of Professional Standards (OPS). All except OPS report to independent boards to prevent tampering from elected officials who might be investigated. Their work is separate from OIG but can overlap and coordinate.
“For better or worse, there’s enough work for all of us,” says Manigault.
The OGI’s Compliance Division meets quarterly with the auditor and ethics offices, she said. “We make sure we are in regular communication about areas of interest and make sure there are no conflicts among us in any particular matter. Not stepping on anyone’s toes and collaborating wherever we can,” she said.
There recently was something of a turf battle with the Ethics Office, which investigates and enforces violations of the City’s ethics code and collects financial disclosure reports from City officials. Formed in 2002, the Ethics Office existed well before the OIG, but was originally folded into it as a division. But earlier this year, the Atlanta City Council made the Ethics Office separate again following concerns from Ethics Officer Jabu M. Sengova about her agency’s independence and funding. The OIG will take up ethics matters that rise to the level of criminal activity, says Manigault.
The Auditor’s Office has similar contract-compliance functions to the OIG and “we actually use the same tagline of [uncovering] ‘waste, fraud and abuse,’” says Manigault. But, she notes, there is a difference between audits, which are general reviews for accuracy and compliance, and investigations, which focus on wrongdoing. The Auditor’s Office can refer matters to OIG for review and vice versa.
“And that has happened,” says Manigault. “We have definitely taken referrals from [the Auditor’s Office] and, I can’t give details, but we are kicking around a matter that we think could benefit from an audit.”
As for APD’s OPS, it also can trade referrals with OIG in cases involving “more than just individual conduct,” Manigault says.
All of those divisions can still be confusing for the public, and all have limits on their powers that may not be obvious to the general public. That goes double for novel situations like one of the biggest political controversies in recent memory: Atlanta’s public safety training center, which would serve City police and fire departments, but which is being planned and built by the private Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). The private planning and APF’s operation of its own review committee have raised various ethical and legal questions. In one case, the Ethics Office ended up determining that APF’s giving of Christmas gifts to review committee members was improper. Less clear was whether the OIG had jurisdiction over the committee’s controversial removal of a skeptical member, as the member suggested she would be pursuing a complaint. Also open is the question of who, if anyone, is reviewing the project’s contracts for corruption.
“I did receive a complaint [about the training center]. I can only talk about it because we did not pursue it,” says Manigault, adding she forgets the details but “exactly to your point, it wasn’t anything that alleged things that were in our mandate.”
Much of the training center contracting also would not fall under that mandate. While the OIG has that power to review all solicitations over $1 million, Manigualt said, that applies specifically to reviews that ultimately inform City Council consideration and votes. Private contracts like those for the training center work that are not directly approved by the council would not qualify.
“So yes, you have the council kind of weighing in on the [training center] project as a whole… but as you say, this is a project that’s going to be administered by an outside entity – a private entity,” says Manigault. “So all of the solicitations that would go to that bigger project wouldn’t go through the same pipeline that our City department-focused solicitations would receive.”
On the other hand, the OIG’s jurisdiction is clear enough in many other areas. The office says it has investigated more than 30 cases so far. One that got major media attention was last year’s report that Reed was improperly reimbursed for $83,000 in health insurance, travel and a donation, though current Mayor Andre Dickens has chosen not to pursue recommendations about recouping the money or treating it as pay.
This week, the OIG issued a report saying that four City departments improperly failed to seek reimbursement for nearly $323,000 in vehicle damages attributed to employee negligence. Those findings came in an investigation of a Department of Public Works employee’s collision where, according to the OIG, a drug and alcohol test was improperly administered.
What is City Hall looking like to the inspector general in these years after the Reed administration scandals? “I’d say this: the mayor [Dickens] has set a tone through messaging through the City that he wants this administration to be run ethically and with integrity,” says Manigault. And the roughly $3 million in funding for her office is one manifestation, a “financial commitment” that she says she says is “something I definitely don’t take for granted.”
“That said, I want this office to have much more of a presence within City offices,” says Manigault. “I’d like City employees to know who we are. We are still very much at the beginning of this process.”
Hence, the new publicity campaign, for which the private firm JacobsEye Marketing Agency will receive up to $120,000. Why can’t the OIG and City press offices do such work within their budgets? Manigault said the campaign needed an outside design touch and expects it will help the OIG to, like many such agencies around the country, regain “far more money than they cost.” She says that while controls and audits are good, tips from City employees and the public remain the main way corruption and waste are discovered, and such publicity is regularly performed by other such agencies to generate such tips.
“With an increase in tips, that savings to the City increases,” she says.
The publicity will include posters and signs in City facilities, as well as ads on websites, the radio and even MARTA buses.
The publicity contract also involved creating an OIG logo and rebuilding a website that was an “entirely do-it-yourself production…[and] it shows,” says Manigault. “You want to make sure that the presentation of the office matches the quality of work in the office.”
With years of experience in investigations and more tips coming in, how does Manigault view government? Are most people trying their best? Does power always corrupt?
“As Jane Q. Citizen, I think it’s a combination of what you said… and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” says Manigault, adding that even most problems her office uncovers are not based in ill intent. “I think overwhelmingly people are doing the right thing and want to do the right thing…. It is also my experience that there are always going to be bad apples, and that is universal. That is at every level of government. That does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, gender, [or] political affiliation.”
“You know, people who are out to engage in self-interest, notwithstanding their mandate to serve the public, are going to find a way to do that,” she says. “And I’m just glad there are offices like this to stop that from happening.”
How to report corruption, fraud, waste and abuse
The OIG has three ways to report allegations of corruption, fraud, waste and abuse by City officials, employees and vendors.
Tip line staffed Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.: 404-546-2271
Online form (which also can be printed and mailed): www.atloig.org/reportform