ATLANTA — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's spokesperson told Channel 2 Action News the city has reversed its prior decision, announcing it will release 1.3 million pages of records next week pertaining to contracts at the center of a bribery scandal that has gripped City Hall.
"The City just learned that the investigation has progressed to a point that certain documents may be produced without compromising the integrity of the investigation," city attorney Cathy Hampton said.
The city had previously refused several open records requests filed by Channel 2 Action News investigative reporters Jodie Fleischer, Richard Belcher and Mark Winne, as well as those of our news partners at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, citing the ongoing federal investigation into a scheme involving bribes paid by construction CEO E.R. Mitchell Jr. to win city contracts.
Mitchell pleaded guilty last week to a conspiracy charge and has agreed to cooperate with the federal government's case. He admitted paying someone more than $1 million between 2010 and 2015, with the understanding that some of all of the money would be given to Atlanta city officials with the power to steer contracts.
The AJC and Channel 2 Action News sought contracts, payments, emails and other routine city documents pertaining to Mitchell, his associates, and their companies, and received a blanket denial of that information saying the ongoing federal investigation allowed them an exemption under Georgia's open records law.
First Amendment experts, however, have said this argument for withholding and releasing records has no basis in Georgia law. Records generated as part of city business cannot be withheld because the city fell under scrutiny from federal investigators.
The reversal by the city comes two days after attorneys for Channel 2 Action News and the AJC sent a letter to City Hall demanding release of documents by Friday.
- Jan. 26, 2017: Atlanta mayor distances himself from staffer with connection to bribery scandal
- Jan. 25, 2017: Construction CEO pleads guilty to federal corruption, bribery charges
- Jan. 25, 2017: Man charged with intimidating bribery witness tied to mayor operative
- Jan. 19, 2017: Mayor responds to allegations of $1M bribery scandal involving city contracts
"None of the requested records were 'compiled for law enforcement' purposes, nor would they disclose a confidential informant, endanger anyone or reveal a confidential investigation," said the letter from attorney Mike Caplan.
Reed’s press secretary, Jenna Garland, said the city attorney has not yet reviewed the letter sent by Mr. Caplan on behalf of the AJC and Channel 2 Action News. "Today’s statement is not in response to this communication. Rather, the statement clearly conveys that the City’s action is in response to developments in the criminal investigation.”
The city also denied all pending open records requests related to Mitzi Bickers, a political operative who once worked for Mitchell and in Reed's administration.
Bickers was also a business associate of a man arrested for threatening Mitchell by placing dead rats in his yard and throwing a brick through his window with the message to keep his mouth shut.
The city also cited the federal investigation in denying records related to Bickers, even though prosecutors have not disclosed any connection between Bickers and the ongoing bribery case.
On Friday, Reed distanced himself from Bickers, whose voter mobilization work is widely considered to have won Reed his first mayoral election.
"We're going to continue to cooperate and follow the facts wherever they go," Reed said, without disclosing any specifics.
The city said the records will be released by the end of next week and be subject only to redactions for privacy-related information.
Officials plan to release the records Channel 2 Action News and the AJC requested, plus hundreds of thousands of pages of records that weren't requested, which critics call a thinly-veiled attempt to complicate and delay the investigative reporting.
“This is exactly what they do, they either deny or they dump. They're dumping so many records on you as the media that you can't possibly find the needle in the haystack,” said William Perry, director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “The city absolutely should have complied from the beginning, but this is an obvious attempt to protect the guilty. I feel like they're overloading the documents so it stalls the process.”
Cox Media Group