So there they were Tuesday gathered around a conference table for a second meeting of the Augusta Commission’s ethics ordinance subcommittee: Chairman Donnie Smith and Commissioners Alvin Mason, Corey Johnson and Mary Davis.
Commissioners Marion Williams, Bill Fennoy and Grady Smith were also sitting in to hear the subcommittee discuss a process for determining the guilt or innocence of a commissioner deemed to have violated the city’s ethics ordinance.
Commissioners created the subcommittee to revamp the ordinance after censuring Grady Smith, Joe Jackson and Wayne Guilfoyle for doing business with the city. Commissioners Bill Lockett, Williams, Mason and Fennoy, vocal critics of the three accused, had complained the ordinance has no teeth.
Shortly after the meeting started, Williams asked Mason and Johnson to recuse themselves because of reports that they had received gifts and contributions from Heery International, the city’s private construction management firm.
Augusta Chronicle Staff Writers Susan McCord and Sandy Hodson had worked on stories that week about Heery’s fees and how the company wooed commissioners and school board members with box seats at Atlanta Falcons games and Atlanta Braves tickets.
The stories detailed Johnson’s and Mason’s requests to Heery for money for community breakfasts, newsletters, neighborhood association awards, donations to nonprofits and scholarships. An Aug. 20 memo from Mason to Heery sought $9,800 to pay for those necessities.
Since being hired in 2003, Heery has contributed to many commission candidates’ campaigns. Memos in some company records indicate officials contributed to commissioners who supported their contract, which, by the way, is up for a two-year extension. Heery has also made about $9.5 million the past 10 years.
Johnson and Mason refused to recuse themselves from the meeting and afterward defended the gifts and contributions as being strictly legal, based on the current ethics ordinance.
Mason kept waving a copy of the ordinance around with this exemption for reporting requirements highlighted: “courtesy tickets or free admission extended to an elected official for an event as a courtesy or for ceremonial purposes.”
As for the donations, they went to the Committee to Elect Alvin Mason, he said. Johnson said his went for “community outreach.”
THAT’S THE WAY WE DO THINGS AROUND HERE: The current ethics ordinance calls for both the donor and the recipient to report gifts and contributions of more than $100 to the commission clerk by the following Feb. 1. But as far as we can tell, nobody has reported anything since the ordinance was adopted 14 years ago.
LOBSTERS ON LEASHES: Heery isn’t the only company that has contributed generously to commissioners’ campaigns and pet projects.
CH2M Hill, the city’s water consultant after the water crisis of 1998, and its subsidiary Operations Management International, which managed the city’s sewer plant until it lost out to ESG Operations in 2009, wined and dined commissioners, made campaign contributions, took out ads on one commissioner’s radio station and supported another’s education program.
ESG also contributes to commissioners’ campaigns, as do many other vendors and contractors.
Anyway, after OMI received the sewer plant contract, then-Mayor Bob Young proposed an ethics ordinance for city officials and employees. Commissioner J.B. Powell led the subcommittee that worked on it.
“We’ve heard about the lobsters on a leash,” Powell said at one meeting, referring to a dinner at Morton’s Restaurant in Atlanta held by OMI and CH2M Hill before commissioners voted to negotiate a multimillion-dollar contract with OMI.
“We heard about the proposed trip being paid for by a vendor,” Powell continued, referring to OMI’s offer to pay for the mayor’s airplane ticket to San Juan, Puerto Rico. “We read that in the media. … But yet you don’t read about other things that go on, that have been going on for years.”
What’s so ironically funny about this is that as chairman of the city’s Engineering Services Committee, Powell had pushed for OMI to get the contract. After he left the commission in 1999, he did subcontract work for Stevenson & Palmer Engineering, which was working for OMI.
I tried to find out how much money Powell’s companies made working for the city, and the best I could come up was $2.17 million, which probably wasn’t a drop in the bucket.
A GRAVE CONCERN: During the same 1999 ethics ordinance work session, Commissioner Willie Mays, a funeral director, voiced concerns he could be indicted for burying a pauper in a grave provided by the city.
“If we end up passing this ordinance that’s in there, I sure want to know because I don’t want to get caught in it,” he said. “I don’t want to be down there one day losing money in Magnolia (Cemetery) and get served with some papers for malfeasance of a gift from the city that’s going to a hole in the ground with somebody else in it under the technicality of a gift and doing business.”
IN THE LAND OF THE BLIND, THE ONE-EYED MAN IS KING: And never let us forget the bullet Augusta water customers dodged when Commissioners Jerry Brigham and Don Grantham convinced their colleagues in 2007 to get out of a risky $160 million utility bond interest-rate swap – a deal almost nobody understands. Among them were commissioners who voted for the swap after a year-long sell by the broker, a consultant and then-Commissioner Richard Colclough.
Colclough had ties to Jack Boatman, who in 1999 was vice president for business development for a company that sold a method of repairing leaking sewer pipes and manholes. It sold the city on a $525,720 contract to work on the Spirit Creek sewer line. The results didn’t live up to their billing, according to then-Augusta Utilities Director Max Hicks.
Boatman later worked for Gardnyr Michael Capital Inc., the firm that brokered the swap. Boatman donated money to the campaigns of Colclough and other commissioners, and to their neighborhood groups.
Boatman awarded a Jack Boatman scholarship at the South Augusta Neighborhood Alliance for eight years. He also donated money to the Barton Chapel neighborhood group, which then-Commissioner Bobby Hankerson was involved in.
Augusta was supposed to make a lot of money from the deal, based on interest rates rising or staying the same over a long period. But soon after it was consummated, interest rates fell.
Implementing the swap cost the city about $3 million in fees to Gardnyr Michael Capital Inc., which brokered the deal; Deutsche Bank; IMAGE Consulting, a Pottstown, Pa., firm; and Kilpatrick Stockton, which split $75,000 with then-city Attorney Stephen Shepard.
Most commissioners admitted they voted for the swap without understanding it. Officials in Jefferson County, Ala., said the same thing after they found themselves owing billions on sewer debt. In 2011, the county filed the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history after an agreement to refinance $3.1 billion in sewer bonds fell apart.
As Grady Smith says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”