Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis’ largest expense from his My Brother’s Keeper budget is not aid to underprivileged youth, it is payments to a public relations consultant.
Davis has refused to say why he paid consultant Ryan Mahoney $4,500 from the My Brother’s Keeper budget to do what invoices say were “communications services” performed in April, May and June, other than that Mahoney contributed to the success of a recent My Brother’s Keeper summit.
The Augusta Commission gave Davis a separate budget of $38,750 for My Brother’s Keeper this year, in addition to raising the mayor’s office budget by $100,890 to $409,840. Davis has again requested the program funding in the 2018 budget, and City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson included the request in her 2018 budget proposal.
“Ryan Mahoney is a skilled public relations professional who works with my office to promote key initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper,” Davis said in a statement. “Thanks to his efforts and the hard work of our staff and community partners, the third-annual MBK Summit on Saturday, Sept. 30 was an incredibly successful event that engaged, inspired and uplifted young men from the Augusta River Region and beyond.”
Since former President Obama unveiled his legacy initiative, communities accepting the My Brother’s Keeper Challenge have taken various approaches – as not-for-profit 501(c)3 organizations, government agencies or other entities – to address a defined set of goals: Ensuring children enter school ready to learn, can read at grade level by third grade, graduate from high school, complete post-secondary education or job training, have jobs and are safe from violent crime.
My Brother’s Keeper in Birmingham, Ala., for instance,received about $100,000 from Mayor William Bell’s budget to pay nonprofits such as the Birmingham Urban League to work with young men of color, spokeswoman Chasiti Shepherd said. Shepherd’s firm, BGrace Media Group, was hired to do public relations work for the program, in a role similar to what Davis said Mahoney has performed.
Shepherd said BGrace’s workload varied, with heavy social media work and publicity surrounding the yearlong Knight Ball, a nighttime basketball league for males living in Birmingham public housing and local law enforcement, and less since the ball program ended.
Other My Brother’s Keeper programs achieve success with little or no public relations work.
Kristin Fulford, public information officer and grant writer for the Chatham County, Ga., District Attorney’s Office, said a $660,000 federal grant facilitated the Youth Intercept program, which was heralded in the 2016 national My Brother’s Keeper annual progress report. Existing connections with service providers and community stakeholders ensure referrals are made and the program has no public relations budget or spending, Fulford said.
Davis founded My Brother’s Keeper Augusta shortly after taking office in 2015 and attended a My Brother’s Keeper Task Force meeting at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. The Augusta program began with a gathering of business and community leaders and has led to volunteers reading individually to students in local elementary schools and annual half-day summits that feed and engage young men with motivational speakers and mentoring.
Mahoney told a reporter he was unaware on which account Davis had written his checks, but that he’d performed media relations “surrounding all MBK events,” as well as social media promotion of them to drive attendance and awareness.
Most of Mahoney’s verified work for the mayor has been sending news releases on topics other than My Brother’s Keeper, such as the Mayor’s Masters Reception, the monthly Mayor’s Office Hours, the June 20 earthquake and Hurricane Irma.
Davis himself issued a statement in April stating Mahoney was aboard to help him clearly articulate “key programs, projects and initiatives like #SOGO and What Works Cities,” not to serve as a staffer dedicated to the youth program or as a political consultant. SOGO is the mayor’s initiative to redevelop areas south of Gordon Highway.
According to Davis’ 2017 calendar, he met with Mahoney at least 19 times, ahead of news conferences on various topics and to produce the mayor’s “Five @ Five” videos. The videos highlight city developments and the mayor’s activities.
Much of Mahoney’s recent work outside the mayor’s office can be characterized as explicitly political.
Mahoney has been a spokesman for the Georgia Republican Party, for Republican state Sen. Lee Anderson’s 2012 campaign for the 12th Congressional District and on Rep. Mark Newton’s successful state House campaign. He is currently working on Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s campaign for governor and Doug Duncan’s campaign for Columbia County Commission chairman.
Local Republican political consultant Dave Barbee said Mahoney’s work for Davis, who is up for re-election in May, likely is political and shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers, much less the My Brother’s Keeper budget.
Mahoney “is a political consultant,” Barbee said. “He’s giving him some type of political advice. If Hardie wants to pay Mahoney from his campaign funds that’s fine, but if taxpayers are paying that’s not good.”
Asked repeatedly if Mahoney’s work was political, Davis did not respond.
Under state law, political consulting work performed “to influence the election of a person” must be reported on a candidate’s financial report. Davis has not listed the expenses with Mahoney or his consulting firm, Govcomms, on the reports.
Davis did make one payment of $1,500 to Mahoney from the mayor’s office budget, in April. Another payment made from the My Brother’s Keeper budget – to Augusta’s Pinnacle Club restaurant – was miscoded, Davis’ chief of staff Marcus Campbell said in correspondence attached to city financial records.
Some members of the My Brother’s Keeper Augusta advisory board reported having little or no contact with Mahoney or involvement in the program’s budget.
“The girl that was running the program; she’s no longer there,” Richmond County Marshal Ramone Lamkin said of a VISTA worker he encountered at a previous meeting. Now, Davis’ executive assistant, Tonia Gibbons, is conducting the organizational meetings, held every two weeks, and Mahoney has not been present, Lamkin said.
Another board member, Richmond County Board of Education member Wayne Frazier, said he recently resigned from the My Brother’s Keeper board because his role wasn’t having the impact he wanted to have.
Frazier said the advisory board did not engage in discussions about the program budget, but had spoken generally about hiring VISTA workers and how to determine the program’s effectiveness.
Another youth uplift program, which is not affiliated with My Brother’s Keeper, doesn’t spend money on marketing. Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick said Project Impact, a life skills and leadership program for at-risk young men, relies on existing relationships to identify at-risk youth and connect them with mentors.
Thirteen adult men from diverse backgrounds and occupations give one Saturday a month to engage the young men on life skills topics ranging from becoming a man and hygiene to home maintenance and gun safety. Project Impact’s volunteer staff does its marketing and there is no public relations budget, Kendrick said.
Watchdog groups that analyze charities for excess overhead spending only look at organizations registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)3 organizations, said Sara Nason, marketing manager with the online Charity Navigator.
“In order to be called a charity, you have to register with the IRS,” and donations made to unregistered organizations are not tax deductible, Nason said.
City budget rules would not have prevented Davis from using My Brother’s Keepers funds to pay Mahoney. Officials are not prohibited from using other accounts to pay unrelated but legitimate city expenses, as long as the source of funding – in Davis’ case, the city’s general fund – remains the same.
The practice, for instance, allows a department head to spend money designated for May Park Community Center at Diamond Lakes Regional Park, if Diamond Lakes needed additional funds for sports equipment.
Davis’ using the My Brother’s Keeper budget to pay Mahoney was news to Augusta Commission members, but at least one was not surprised.
“Hardie comes up with all this extra stuff and you don’t ask questions, and he tries to trick you,” Commissioner Marion Williams said.
“I just assumed when we approved the funds for My Brother’s Keeper, that they would be spent on that program,” said another, Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis.
Commissioner Sean Frantom said the spending points to weaknesses in the way Augusta creates its budget.
“This is one of the problems with our budgeting process – we don’t provide details from an accountability standpoint,” Frantom said.
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.