ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News has obtained text messages that reveal an effort by then-Mayor Kasim Reed's press secretary to delay releasing potentially embarrassing information about unpaid water bills by Atlanta city officials, and when finally released, to make it as difficult as possible to understand.
The texts were provided to Channel 2 by Lillian Govus, who was the top communications officer for Atlanta's Department of Watershed Management and now works out of state. They document exchanges between Govus and former press secretary Jenna Garland between late February and early April of 2017.
The first exchange followed Channel 2's request for water bills related to Mayor Reed and members of his family. Govus texted Garland, "Got a big (expletive) problem. Involves MKR (Mayor Reed) and Tracy (brother of the mayor). Got an open records request...from WSB. Turns out thousands in unpaid water bills. Properties owned by MKR and Tracy."
When Watershed produced the bills in early March, they showed that a rental house owned by Tracy Reed had run up unpaid balances of as much $9,000, and the account hadn't been paid off in four years. The mayor's own water bills were fully paid.
The pushback came when we asked for the bills for one city councilmember on March 7, 2017. That same day, Garland texted Govus: “I’d be as unhelpful as possible. Drag this out as long as possible. And provide information in the most confusing format available.”
Two weeks later, Channel 2 requested the bills of all councilmembers.
The Georgia Open Records Act says public agencies shall notify persons requesting records within three days when the records will be available and provide the records in a reasonable time frame.
When the city seemed to be lagging in its response to our request for the councilmembers' water bills, Channel 2's attorney began pressing the city for a date. In early April, Garland texted Govus, "Hold all council docs until (Channel 2 producer) Terah (Boyd) asks.
When we finally received the documents on April 14, 2017, they revealed that at least five councilmembers and Council President Ceasar Mitchell hadn't paid their bills in full on a regular basis.
Also in that group was mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms, now the mayor.
Richard Griffiths, a retired senior executive at CNN and current president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation told Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher, "I am shocked, frankly.
What these city officials managed to do was to take what would have been a relatively minor embarrassment … and turn it into a full-on cover-up, and that's the kind of thing you cannot do in a democracy.”
A week after the water bills were released, Channel 2 filed a formal request under the state open records law for any documents related to an upcoming trip to South Africa by Mayor Reed and nine other city employees.
On April 27, Belcher texted Reed’s communications director, Anne Torres, to ask if any records were for release. Torres responded, “There are no records.”
But when the city finally released the travel records in late July, three months after Channel 2's first formal request, there were extensive records related to airline and hotel reservations that had been generated before the trip. At the time Torres told Belcher that no records existed, the city had already spent nearly $56,000 on airfares, all documented by records in the city's possession. Most of the participants flew business class. The total cost of the trip was nearly $90,000.
Garland declined comment when Channel 2 visited her home. Torres, who was Garland's supervisor and is now director of communications for Mayor Bottoms, told Channel 2 that she was unaware of the Garland-Govus texts and that it is the policy of the city to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act.
In her statement to Channel 2, Torres said she did not provided expense reports before the trip. She did not mention that Channel 2's April 20, 2017, request was for "all documents related to the cost of the trip." The request made no mention of expense reports.
"This is the exact kind of thing that the state's sunshine laws were set up to prevent. There's no doubt in mind that the (Georgia) attorney general should be looking into this," Griffiths told Channel 2.