Ga. attorney general launches criminal probe of City Hall texts

Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr’s office on Monday asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to launch a criminal probe of text messages between former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s communication staff coordinating a delayed release of public information requested under the Georgia Open Records Act.

The text message exchange between Reed spokeswoman Jenna Garland and Watershed Department communications director Lillian Govus was reported March 8 by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The referral marks the first criminal investigation ever conducted under the state’s sunshine law since violations became criminal in a 2012 rewriting, and would be prosecuted by one of the attorney general’s senior lawyers.

Senior Assistant Attorney General David S. McLaughlin wrote in a letter to GBI Director Vernon M. Keenan that his office became aware of the text messages by watching a Channel 2 story last week. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution version of the story, which includes quotations from the text message exchanges, was attached to the letter.

“I would like for the GBI to conduct a criminal investigation to determine whether crimes were committed,” the letter says. “I will be the prosecutor assigned to work with the GBI on this matter.”

Channel 2 requested water billing records last year for Reed, his brother Tracy and city council members, which prompted Garland to instruct Govus to “be as unhelpful as possible” and to “drag this out as long as possible” when fulfilling the request.

Garland ends the March 7, 2017, exchange by telling Govus to “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”

Garland, who left the city and now works in the private sector, did not respond to messages on Tuesday. She also did not respond to questions when approached outside of her home last week.

Likewise, Reed did not respond to text messages or AJC questions about whether he knew about Garland’s instructions to delay release of the information, and if his office policy was to delay the release of public information deemed embarrassing.

While Reed wouldn’t answer questions from the AJC, he tweeted on March 8 at Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher: “You have now sunken to chasing a former young woman public servant at her home on International Women’s Day no less.”

The records requested by Channel 2 led to three stories — one of which found that Tracy Reed had an unpaid water bill balance of nearly $9,000 on a rental property; and another that found mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms had unpaid water bill balances for a majority of months since 2008.

The documents were only turned over after an attorney for Channel 2 threatened legal action.

‘Transparency is paramount,’ mayor says

Bottoms, who was elected in December with Reed’s endorsement, said in a statement that her administration is committed to “transparency and abiding by the Georgia Open Records Act.” The statement was released by communications director Anne Torres, who was Garland’s supervisor at the time of her text exchange with Govus.

Torres told the AJC last week that she was unaware of the message exchange between Garland and Govus.

“While I was not privy to decisions made by the previous Administration regarding the Georgia Open Records Act, I want to reaffirm my pledge to rebuilding trust with the public and members of our local media,” Bottoms’ statement says. “Transparency is paramount and my Administration will always follow both the spirit and letter of the Georgia Open Records Act.”

One day after the text message story, the AJC and Channel 2 reported that the city’s law department directed an outside law firm working on the federal bribery investigation to conceal its billing records in another legal matter so as to “reduce the chance of someone internal scouring the invoices or tipping off someone” about the investigation, according to City Attorney Jeremy Berry.

Berry then directed the Baker Donelson law firm to create documents resembling invoices to respond to an AJC request for the legal expenses associated with the bribery investigation.

Berry, who was not involved in the original decision to conceal the legal expenses in another case, acknowledged this month that the documents provided to the AJC were not in fact invoices, but were what he deemed “summaries” of the invoices.

‘Committed to full disclosure,’ attorney says

State law prohibits forging, altering or falsifying public records, but Berry said the documents produced by Baker Donelson were accurate representations of the law firm’s billing for the bribery investigation and that he acted in good faith by asking that they be produced.

Berry was questioned by the city council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration committee on Tuesday about the invoices.

“What happened is the AJC got the records it requested,” Berry said.

The AJC never requested “summaries” of invoices.

Asked about the text messages between Garland and Govus, Berry said: “We are committed to full disclosure. Period.”

When Berry practiced law for a private firm, he said he filed between 50 and 75 open records act requests. He said his office is not involved with every records request, but sometimes instructs other departments on how to respond.

“I understand the open records act,” Berry said. “I understand the importance and need for it, and I understand the severity of not complying with it.”

During his comments, Berry seemed to reference news reports about the GBI investigation, even though no one on the committee had specifically asked him about it.

“No one has contacted me about anything,” he said. “I’ve seen news reports like you. There’s really nothing more for us to say at this point.”

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