The Improvement Authority of Fulton County is spending $5,000 a month on authorities lobbyists, a service some comparable metro authorities don’t use. Till very not too long ago, these lobbyists included a agency owned by the mayor of Sandy Springs that beforehand paid consulting charges to longtime DAFC board chair Bob Shaw — a scenario one ethics watchdog says ought to have raised “crimson flags” properly earlier than Shaw was pressured out this month amid financial scandal.
New board chair Michel “Marty” Turpeau says DAFC wants outdoors lobbyists as a result of it’s smaller and will get much less authorities assist than comparable authorities. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul says he stopped paying Shaw previous to working for DAFC, and that conflicts of curiosity had been averted by way of such mechanisms as Shaw recusing himself from lobbying contract selections and the town supervisor dealing with native discussions with the authority. Shaw didn’t reply to remark requests made by cellphone and e mail.
However critics say the DAFC hires lobbyists primarily due to its uniquely controversial function in granting tax breaks to actual property developments inside Atlanta and different cities, and that the potential stickiness of Paul’s lobbying work ought to revive issues about improvement authorities making a “good previous boy community” — particularly within the wake of the scandal over Shaw and different board members receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable “per diem” payments.
“It’s flawed for the DAFC board to spend charges they earn from wasteful tax breaks on lobbying to fend off public strain to cease these wasteful giveaways,” stated Julian Bene, an activist who’s get together to a lawsuit difficult a number of the authority’s tax abatements in courtroom. “Let’s hope new DAFC board members will cease that follow.”
“I’m actually misplaced for phrases as a result of there are such a lot of crimson flags that come up,” stated William Perry, head of the activist group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, about Paul’s lobbying work for DAFC. “Sadly, they in all probability don’t violate Georgia’s extraordinarily weak conflict-of-interest legal guidelines, although they need to.”
Turpeau says DAFC wants assist from outdoors companies — additionally together with a big public relations firm — as a result of it has solely three workers members. “We don’t obtain cash from the Fulton County price range nor are we offered assist from their workers to function as another improvement authorities do from their native governments,” he stated. As for Paul’s lobbying work — which resulted in April after about 12 years — Turpeau stated DAFC at all times adopted conflict-of-interest legal guidelines and “had minimal interplay with Sandy Springs” on financial improvement points.
Paul stated his agency, RP Communications (usually doing enterprise as iSquared Communications), stopped paying Shaw round 2007, properly earlier than successful the DAFC lobbying contract round 2009. “All monetary preparations ended earlier than we began work for DAFC. … Nevertheless, resulting from his previous relationship with the agency, we constructed a strong firewall to make sure that conflicts could be averted,” stated Paul, citing Shaw’s recusals, that are confirmed by some board assembly minutes.
Since Turpeau took over as board chair in November 2020, the North Fulton-based RP Communications/iSquared contract was phased out forward of schedule and its work changed by Ohio River South, a lobbying agency that he says will focus extra on relationships in South Fulton to “meet the wants of traditionally underserved areas.” Turpeau says that within the roughly three years earlier than he grew to become board chair, he was unaware of the main points or existence of a number of the lobbying contracts.
These feedback echo Turpeau’s different statements about reforming and reorienting DAFC, which was already reining within the per diem funds after, based on board members, they by the way discovered about Shaw’s extreme use previous to the general public scandal. On June 22, the DAFC board authorized additional reforms to its per diem coverage whereas the payments remain on hold pending legal review.
“It’s our hope that folks perceive that whereas we didn’t contribute to those previous points, as soon as found, we shortly labored to make sure insurance policies had been put into place and can proceed to be refined, simply as we did at this time, to forestall this from taking place once more,” Turpeau stated in an e mail in reference to the brand new board management and the per diem coverage. “We would like this improvement authority that has been a pivotal companion within the financial success of Fulton County to maneuver ahead with transparency and belief.”
Howard Franklin, managing companion of Ohio River South, says he hasn’t heard of state legislators trying to crack down on the DAFC within the wake of the scandal — but. “Clearly… it’s an odd time to be coming into [the lobbying work] now since we’re within the information. …It’s too early to say whether or not we count on any laws aimed on the Improvement Authority of Fulton County,” Franklin stated, including that recent changes to the board’s membership and policies could assist. “I hope that can quell, I believe it is going to be in a position to quell [concerns], earlier than we return to the Basic Meeting,” he stated.
However for critics like Perry, the self-reform isn’t sufficient. “This entire system must be scrapped and rebuilt for extra citizen involvement [and] extra oversight, and definitely I believe everybody on the present board ought to step down,” he stated. “It’s fully embarrassing.”
DAFC inside paperwork obtained by Bene by way of a public information request revealed the per diem funds that grew to become a scandal when the Atlanta Journal-Structure and Channel 2 Motion Information reported them. The information additionally embody numerous lobbyist contracts.
Paul’s agency was lengthy the DAFC’s prime lobbyist and advertising and marketing advisor. (Paul additionally affiliated with the agency Arnall Golden Gregory from roughly 2007 to 2012, the identical agency that at this time gives DAFC’s attorneys.) A 2018 contract renewal that was to run into 2023 paid a beginning price of $5,192 per 30 days for “public relations, authorities relations, advertising and marketing and picture enhancement.” A January 2021 modification diminished the contract to authorities relations and $3,500 a month, and it resulted in April.
In 2019, DAFC additionally contracted with Paramount Consulting Group, which is led by Tharon Johnson, often called a panelist on FOX 5’s public affairs program “The Georgia Gang.” The contract was to pay $10,000 a month plus bills for lobbying the Fulton County legislative delegation, the Fulton Board of Commissioners, the Metropolis of Atlanta and the Atlanta college board. Turpeau stated he was unaware that contract existed and that Paramount is just not at the moment working for DAFC. Johnson didn’t reply to a query about his work underneath that contract.
Ohio River South, the brand new lobbying agency, is being paid $5,000 a month on a contract that started Jan. 1 and runs by way of July 1, with six-month renewals accessible. The contract contains three broad methods: “Advocate for DAFC priorities within the Basic Meeting”; “Work with native delegation to broaden DAFC’s attain and affect”; and “Interact related jurisdictions inside Fulton County’s footprint.” One purpose is to “recruit a coalition of bipartisan leaders to DAFC’s legislative agenda,” together with officers within the state legislature and all 15 Fulton cities.
Apart from lobbyists, DAFC additionally contracts with the advertising and marketing and public relations agency Jackson Spalding. That firm’s contract began in 2020 underneath the earlier board management with a contract that paid $7,500 a month plus bills.
Turpeau stated it’s “frequent information” that governments and different authorities rent lobbyists and public relations companies and that DAFC wants the assistance resulting from lack of workers to fill such roles. DAFC has three workers members and an govt director place that’s at the moment vacant, with Turpeau doubling there in an interim function. He in contrast DAFC to DeKalb County’s improvement authority, with a workers of eight, and Make investments Atlanta, an umbrella group that mixes three financial improvement companies and has a big workers.
Make investments Atlanta and Resolve DeKalb, because the county authority manufacturers itself, have communications staffers and say they both at the moment or quickly will rent outdoors communication companies for sure features. Nevertheless, each of these authorities say they don’t have any lobbyists, both on workers or by contract. “We function in a different way from them,” Make investments Atlanta spokesperson Matt Fogt stated when instructed of DAFC’s use of lobbyists.
Nevertheless, Make investments Atlanta has had lobbyists registered to signify it at occasions over the previous 15 years, based on Georgia’s online lobbyist registration records. The newest was Robert S. Highsmith Jr., a widely known political determine and lawyer to former Mayor Kasim Reed, whose lobbyist registration with the Atlanta Improvement Authority (the pre-branding title of Make investments Atlanta) resulted in 2018.
Amongst improvement authorities inside metro-area counties and cities, Clayton County’s is the one different one to have a foyer registered to signify it in recent times. A joint authority of Fulton and several other different metro counties has used lobbyists as properly — together with Paul and Shaw roughly 15 years in the past. A handful outdoors the metro space have registered lobbyists in recent times additionally, such because the authority in Bainbridge/Decatur County.
Bene, who’s a former Make investments Atlanta board member, says he believes DAFC hires lobbyists as a result of longstanding controversy over its granting of tax abatements on luxurious tasks inside cities which have their very own improvement authorities, together with Atlanta and South Fulton. Bene argues that the per diem funds created a self-interested motive to proceed granting such offers.
In a rare scenario in Atlanta, the Metropolis Council, the college board and Make investments Atlanta have demanded — unsuccessfully — that DAFC cease granting tax breaks throughout the metropolis. (Ohio River South, the brand new lobbying agency, says on its web site that its different shoppers embody the Atlanta college board.)
And a few state lawmakers are placing improvement authorities on the defensive. This yr’s House Bill 66 , proposed by Decatur state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver and different DeKalb Democrats, would give schools and cities the authorized standing to formally complain in courtroom when county improvement authorities need to grant property tax breaks. Fulton Democrats led by state Rep. Derrick Jackson of Tyrone proposed House Bill 558, which might halt Fulton authority tasks that don’t have college system and metropolis assist.
The state Home’s second-highest-ranking Republican, Speaker Professional Tem Jan Jones of Milton, signed onto a similar bill in 2020 that may have required DAFC tasks get college and metropolis approval. Not one of the payments ended up getting a committee vote.
Perry famous that DAFC is well-known for approving just about each tax break request that comes earlier than it and thus doesn’t appear to wish coverage adjustments to hold out its work. “So the necessity for lobbyists is both a solution to pay again mates or a solution to put icing on the cake,” he stated.
The mayor and the board chair
Paul’s lobbying and consulting work with DAFC started across the time he wrapped up a time period on the Sandy Springs Metropolis Council. Apart from the connection with Shaw, Paul’s lobbying place grew extra advanced when he was elected mayor in 2013, a place he continues to carry and for which he’s now operating for reelection. Sandy Springs has its personal improvement authority, and as a metropolis chief, Paul was, at the least on paper, amongst those who new lobbyist Ohio River South would search to affect — although he and Franklin say no precise conversations have occurred.
Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs says that was all too cozy. “How will you, in good conscience, rent a lobbying firm you both work for or used to work for, with the goal [of lobbying] additionally being somebody who owns the corporate?” he asks.
Paul says any conflicts had been averted and famous that another elected officers within the state additionally work as lobbyists. He’s registered with the state and information disclosure paperwork that’s publicly accessible on-line. “I imagine all of us endeavor to keep away from conflicts of curiosity and there aren’t any inherent conflicts in offering authorities affairs providers whereas additionally serving our native communities,” he stated.
Paul downplayed his enterprise relationship with Shaw, although Shaw was featured prominently on the agency’s web site and the 2 are politically shut as former chairs of the Georgia Republican Social gathering. Paul additionally famous that his lobbying work usually was no secret in Sandy Springs. However DAFC’s tax abatements on some controversial, city-approved tasks weren’t well-known on the time.
“Mr. Shaw was by no means an worker,” Paul stated. “When he retired from banking, he wanted an workplace to work from, so we gave him entry to an workplace in a constructing we owned. I paid him $500 a month plus the workplace to be a marketing consultant principally to evaluate our firm financials and help with enterprise financing.”
The iSquared web site, nevertheless, touted Shaw as “Marketing campaign Director” and an skilled on quite a lot of coverage topics. “As chairman of the State Republican Social gathering throughout the Watergate period, he understands how you can deal with powerful points. But, nobody is healthier identified — is aware of extra folks — or is extra revered in Georgia politics than Bob Shaw,” says the web site, which remains live, however has not been up to date since round 2008 and is just about unreadable on trendy browsers.
Solely Shaw, Rusty Paul and Jan Paul, Rusty’s partner and co-founder of the enterprise, had been featured on the web site. Every has a profile web page headed by a motto-style citation; Shaw’s selection was the previous joke, “Should you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullsh*t.”
Paul says the payment and the workplace association ended earlier than he took on the DAFC lobbying work and the “firewall” went up. Inner paperwork present that Shaw continued to make use of his iSquared firm e mail deal with for DAFC enterprise at the least as late as 2019.
In response to state information, Shaw was himself a registered lobbyist for quite a lot of organizations — generally together with DAFC — from at the least 2006, throughout his affiliation with Paul’s agency, by way of 2018. Paul stated that as a part of his personal DAFC contract, he accomplished Shaw’s lobbyist disclosures paperwork, however stated Shaw was registered by way of DAFC, not RP Communications/iSquared.
Paul stated that since turning into mayor, he has not solicited new lobbying shoppers and continued to work with current ones, with a few exceptions for referrals. DAFC’s contact with the Metropolis of Sandy Springs typically bypasses the mayor, Paul stated, underneath a pre-existing association the place former Metropolis Supervisor John McDonough “insisted that DAFC contact the town supervisor earlier than approving any tax offers in Sandy Springs to make sure that tasks met the town’s financial improvement targets.”
Nevertheless, Paul stated, DAFC workers did ask his opinion about tax abatement proposals for 2 Sandy Springs condo complexes. “I stated the town didn’t favor tax abatements for condo complexes, solely enterprise relocations, creation or expansions,” Paul stated, including he didn’t know the end result of the requests.
Paul has usually talked about his lobbying work at Metropolis Council conferences, although often with a deal with state laws which may have an effect on the town fairly than his work for DAFC. DAFC’s tax abatements on native tasks should not well-known, significantly because the authority for many years didn’t checklist the situation of tasks on its assembly agendas and till 2019 didn’t publicly disclose the estimated worth of the tax breaks.
One instance is the Sq. One condo midrise, for which DAFC in 2013 authorized a property tax abatement by way of the issuance of $42 million in tax-exempt bonds. In local media coverage at the time of its 2014 groundbreaking, Paul praised the mission as aiding the creation of a brand new downtown space for the town, however there was no point out of the tax break from DAFC and Paul’s work for the authority.
Turpeau stated that in his time as board chair, and from his understanding of earlier DAFC actions, there have been no conflicts involving Paul’s roles as mayor and lobbyist and that DAFC has adopted state legal guidelines governing improvement authorities, “significantly with how conflicts are addressed.”
–Maggie Lee contributed