By John Ruch
Christmas gifts given to the public safety training center’s advisory committee by the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) ran afoul of ethics rules, according to a City decision.
“Committee members should seek to avoid situations which may raise an appearance of impropriety or call into question the objectivity of the committee’s collective work on behalf of the City and its respective stakeholders,” wrote Ethics Officer Jabu M. Sengova in a March 1 letter about the gifts to the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC).
Sengova’s letter also confirmed that CSAC members must file financial disclosures with the City and declared APF among the “prohibited sources” of gifts or gratuities. She also called on the CSAC to receive ethics training at an upcoming meeting.
However, it is unclear when or if the CSAC will meet again. Its monthly meetings have been canceled without explanation since January. That’s when SaportaReport revealed multiple transparency issues with the body, including the Christmas gifts and the legality of an Atlanta Police Department official running the meetings. Other problems include an incorrect membership list that includes people apparently not formally appointed by the Atlanta City Council and the removal of a skeptical member followed by others agreeing to promote an APD “narrative” that some “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protesters are domestic terrorists.
Since then, Mayor Andre Dickens has established a new “task force” in his attempt to merge input on the controversial training center and the South River Forest green space concept. That group also has numerous unanswered questions about membership, authority and transparency.
In the gift-giving incident, the APF – the training center’s lead planner – sent official White House Christmas tree ornaments priced online at $24.95 to each member of the CSAC. The brass ornament has enamel decoration depicting the White House as constructed with gingerbread. It came in a gift box along with a “gingerbread scented booklet” and a recipe from the late First Lady Pat Nixon.
The City Code of Ethics generally prohibits giving anything of value to a member of a government body from someone who does business with the City or has interests the officials can affect.
The City Ethics Division began investigating the gifts in January following SaportaReport’s story and inquiries. In her ruling letter, Sengova said the ornaments had only a “nominal value” – given as $16 – but said that can still “raise an appearance of impropriety and implicate the City’s prohibition on gifts.”
“There is no evidence to suggest that APF was seeking to influence any decisions or advice provided by CSAC to APF on behalf of the City or its stakeholders for the project,” wrote Sengova. “However, given that CSAC is tasked with providing recommendations to APF, APD and the City on behalf of project stakeholders in relation to the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, any gifts, however nominal, could raise an appearance of favoritism or bias in the eyes of the public in relation to the decisions made by the committee’s membership.”
APF did not vet the gift-giving beforehand with the Ethics Division, according to Sengova.
An underlying problem is earlier confusion about the legal status of the CSAC, which was created by the council in 2021. The council legislation was hastily written to quell widespread outrage about the lack of public input into the plan. It contained many errors, misspelling some members’ names, misreporting the neighborhoods or officials some represent and omitting one member entirely.
Sengova previously told SaportaReport that her office was confused by the legislation’s language and initially believed some members from DeKalb County were not subject to City ethics laws. Her letter elaborates on that, saying it was initially “not clear” to her office if the CSAC was created by APF or by the City. But now, she said, it is clear that the CSAC is a City body to which the ethics code applies. That confirms that CSAC members also must file financial disclosure forms.
Because of the earlier confusion, Sengova wrote the CSAC “had not been made aware” that the ethics code applies to it and therefore its members and the APF were not aware at the time that the gift-giving might be improper. While the Ethics Division may not have formally notified the CSAC about its obligations to the ethics code, SaportaReport already revealed and confirmed that at least two months before the gift-giving, when Sengova said all members would have to file ethics disclosures.
Regardless, Sengova’s letter says the APF and CSAC are now aware of the ethics rules. “Therefore, CSAC members are not allowed to receive any gratuities from prohibited sources, including APF, unless a specific exception applies,” she wrote. The ethics code contains several exceptions for gift-giving, including certain “mementos” and “novelties.”