ATLANTA - In texts from a personal smartphone, the top spokeswoman for former Mayor Kasim Reed tried to compel a senior city official to delay production of public records, repeatedly telling him to thwart a city attorney’s advice to comply with an open records request and even issuing a veiled threat to involve Reed, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News show.
“If she wants to work for the media, then she should leave her position,” former Reed aide Anne Torres said in a Sept. 27 text to Atlanta Beltline CEO Brian McGowan, discussing a Channel 2 request for his employment contract. “We can hold whatever we want for as long as we want.”
After McGowan told Torres the agency’s lawyer advised him — correctly — that the contract needed to be turned over immediately to comply with state law, Torres had this to say about attorney Nina Hickson, a former judge, prosecutor and ethics officer for the city of Atlanta:
“She’s clearly going to be an issue for you going forward. I would talk to MKR about how to deal with her,” wrote Torres, using shorthand for Mayor Kasim Reed.
The directive to delay release of McGowan’s contract echo texts Torres’ deputy Jenna Garland sent last year that have since triggered a state criminal investigation and were included in an AJC/Channel 2 complaint to the Georgia Attorney General, alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests at City Hall.
The right of access to government records — for the public and for the press — is a tenant of democracy, and is guaranteed by federal law and codes in all 50 states. Transparency in government actions and records ensures accountability for taxpayer-funded programs and elected officials.
Beltline officials ultimately turned over the contract as the law required. But Torres’ texts provide an unvarnished look at the mindset of senior members of the Reed administration through the unguarded words of one of Reed’s closest advisers and most ardent defenders.
“This is absolutely outrageous,” said Cynthia Counts, a media law and First Amendment attorney at Duane Morris in Atlanta of Torres’ texts. “It’s sabotaging the public’s rights to their own records and (the law) should be enforced.”
Torres’ texts to McGowan suggest that the instructions by former press secretary Garland last year to “drag” out fulfillment of an open records request weren’t the actions of a rogue employee, but part of a culture within the Reed administration to release public information on timetables of their choosing, not those set by state law. Torres was Garland’s supervisor.
“It certainly speaks to the tone behind the throne, this idea they’re promulgating one policy but practicing another,” said Charles Davis, dean of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
The texts also raise questions about Torres’ own compliance with the Open Records Act. In response to an AJC/Channel 2 request on March 27 for texts to or from city officials related to open records on her personal cellphone since Jan. 1, 2017, the city said Torres found none. The texts between her and McGowan in this story came from McGowan’s phone, obtained under an April 17 open records request to nine city officials.
Sunshine laws in Georgia generally provide that all communications among public officials are public records, and have been interpreted by the Attorney General’s office to cover personal communication devices if those devices are used to conduct public business.
In an email to the AJC and Channel 2, Torres defended her exchange with McGowan.
“The specific text messages you are singling out represent an informal exchange between two colleagues, and at best, are inter-employee banter,” Torres said. “The records in question were produced within three business days and in compliance with the Georgia Open Records Act.”
Torres also said in her email to the AJC and Channel 2 that the text messages requested on March 27 were older than six months and no longer on her phone. State law requires general correspondence to be preserved for five years.
Reed declined to answer questions about Torres, including whether her texts reflected his own views on government transparency, but offered a full-throated defense of his longtime aide as “a distinguished public servant who served my Administration with the highest level of integrity.”
McGowan and Hickson declined to comment for this story. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office said Torres’ texts were “absolutely not” reflective of the city’s policies on open records requests.
“This administration remains committed to full compliance with open records laws,” a city spokesperson said.
UGA’s Davis commended both Beltline officials for standing up to the pressure from Torres, but he singled out Hickson.
“She sounds like she should be providing Georgia Open Records Act training for the rest of Atlanta,” Davis said. “The breathtaking arrogance of [Torres] in these text messages. It’s stunning.”
The GBI investigation
State law mandates that government officials provide responsive documents within three business days of a request if they are readily available. Obstructing or “frustrating” the release of documents is explicitly prohibited and punishable as a misdemeanor.
Those provisions are the basis for the GBI’s open records investigation into texts between Garland and Watershed Department staffer Lillian Govus from March 2017. The exchange showed Garland instructing Govus to “drag this out as long as possible” when fulfilling an information request about water service bills at the addresses of the city’s top elected leaders.
It took months for the city to pull the records.
Channel 2 ultimately produced stories based on the records that showed Reed’s brother Tracy and some members of City Council were behind on paying their water bills. Among the delinquent council members was Bottoms, Reed’s successor as mayor.
Last month, when Torres was asked about efforts by Garland and Govus to delay records production, she laughed and told an AJC reporter: “It must be a slow news day.” Torres later said she was unaware of the messages and that Reed’s policy was to follow state law.
After the GBI opened its criminal investigation March 13, City Attorney Jeremy Berry retained an Atlanta law firm with close ties to Reed and his administration to examine Garland’s text messages and the city’s compliance with sunshine laws.
The firm, Holland & Knight, took just eight business days to file a report it said cleared Garland and Berry of wrongdoing. A partner at the firm told the AJC and Channel 2 that Garland’s texts amounted to “inter-employee banter,” the same language Torres used. The report has not been released to the public.
Mayor Bottoms has pledged to improve transparency at City Hall amid the GBI investigation and set a different tone with the media. Bottoms asked for resignation letters from more than two dozen cabinet members on April 9.
Torres’ was one of the first that she accepted.
‘Keep him distracted’
In September, as Reed’s relations with the media reached a low point, Reed announced McGowan as the new Beltline CEO, replacing Paul Morris, who resigned in August. A former CEO of Invest Atlanta, McGowan had been a top economic development aide to Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of commerce under President Obama.
At the time, Reed’s plans to award long-term, six-figure contracts to McGowan and other city department heads in his final months in office became a campaign issue in the race for Reed’s successor.
On Sept. 27, a Wednesday, investigative reporter Richard Belcher made the request for McGowan’s contract on behalf of Channel 2 and the AJC.
McGowan told Torres that Hickson advised that the documents had to be produced by the upcoming Friday as required by law. “Any advice?” he asked.
“I really hate people like Nina,” Torres replied about Hickson. “You are not obligated to provide anything to Belcher on Friday. The Beltline is ONLY obligated to respond with an estimated timeline of when the contract will be available by Friday. You can determine how long that will be. It can hold until next week or another day that provides a busy news cycle to keep him distracted.”
McGowan pushed back: “I don’t know the specifics of the rule but she says that she is not ‘willing’ to hold it beyond the 3 days.” McGowan said Hickson wanted to release the contract over the weekend or on Monday because she would be out of the office one day that week.
Torres responded tersely: “Why is she being like this?”
“Nina should do whatever you want her to do,” Torres wrote. “Again, all we need to provide on Friday to Belcher is a response that provides an estimate as to when the contract will be available.”
To that, McGowan responded: “She says ‘if the document is readily available then we have to provide it immediately.’”
McGowan said he planned to seek the advice of Invest Atlanta’s attorney. Torres answered McGowan with her ominous reference to Reed.
Beltline officials provided the contract the following Monday, the timetable discussed in the texts, after McGowan told Torres that Invest Atlanta’s attorney concurred with Hickson’s reading of the law.
Rocky relations with the media
The AJC and Channel 2 have called into question the city’s compliance with state records laws since January 2017, when the city refused to release documents related to the federal investigation of pay-to-play contracting at City Hall.
The city, under intense media scrutiny, eventually complied. Reed held a February press conference to display more than 1 million pages of documents in hundreds of boxes he said had been sent to federal prosecutors.
The mountain of documents included unreadable spreadsheets and thousands of blank pages, as well as school lunch menus, crime reports and even street paving schedules. The city ultimately produced the records electronically, and to-date, the city said it has produced about 4 million pages to an online repository.
Since the bribery investigation came into public view, Reed and his communications staff took an increasingly adversarial approach to media requests, with Torres at the helm of that response.
Torres did not answer a question regarding training she received in state public access laws. Her bio on LinkedIn states she received her degree in advertising and marketing from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, but came to the Reed administration in 2012 having directed communications for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Reed’s press office regularly issued scathing press releases attacking stories critical of his administration, often blasting reporters by name.
In August, Torres bluntly told McGowan how to deal with reporters in a text message.
McGowan had asked Torres if an AJC reporter could be let in on a story that Torres had promised exclusively to two other media outlets.
“Nope,” Torres replied. “F—- him.”
The story so far
March 8: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action news reported on text messages by Jenna Garland, former Mayor Kasim Reed’s press secretary, instructing a Watershed employee to “drag this out as long as possible” in regard to a Channel 2 request for water billing records for city elected officials. After the reports, the GBI opened a criminal investigation.
March 16: The GBI probe expanded to include the city’s law department after an AJC/Channel 2 investigation into purported legal invoices the city sent the AJC in response to an open records request. The reports revealed documents provided by the city in response to a request last year for legal bills weren’t actual invoices.
Today: The AJC and Channel 2 obtained text messages by Garland’s boss, former Reed director of communications Anne Torres, showing she pressured an attorney for the Atlanta Beltline to delay production of public records.
Being transparent with readers
Staff writer J. Scott Trubey is named in the AJC and Channel 2’s complaint to Attorney General Chris Carr detailing examples of the city’s failure to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act. He is also the reporter referenced in today’s story in an Anne Torres text containing an expletive.
How we got the story
On March 27, the AJC and Channel 2 Action News requested the electronic communications of former Mayor Kasim Reed, former communications director Anne Torres and former press secretary Jenna Garland from Jan. 1, 2017, forward. City Attorney Jeremy Berry notified the AJC and Channel 2 March 30 that none existed on the personal devices of the three officials, but that some existed on Torres’ city-issued phone. Emails and other electronic communications were to be provided when the city’s computer systems restored following a ransomware attack, Berry said. On April 17, the AJC and Channel 2 requested all text messages to or from Garland and Torres from the business and personal cellphones of nine city officials. Text messages quoted in this story came from the phone of Beltline CEO Brian McGowan. The AJC and Channel 2 are reviewing other messages obtained from the city.
This article was written by J. Scott Trubey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
© 2018 Cox Media Group.