ATLANTA - Sunday, April 30, Delta Flight 72 was boarding, the jet bound for Amsterdam and ultimately Cape Town, South Africa.
Eight city of Atlanta employees were on board. Another employee left a day earlier.
As boarding continued, Mayor Kasim Reed arrived on the tarmac with his security team. He was preparing to board the Delta Airbus jet for the grueling 20 hours flight to Cape Town, with a brief layover in Amsterdam.
Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille invited the Atlanta Mayor and a delegation to visit her, says the Mayor’s spokesperson. She had visited Mayor Reed here in Atlanta in 2016.
A city press release said the trip was set for "boosting entrepreneurship, resiliency and the arts and entertainment industries." A city spokesman wrote me to say the invitation was meaningful to Mayor Reed because the City shares a "deep and unique bond with the nation of South Africa through the shared struggle for civil rights.."
We had been tipped that this trip was going to be quite expensive. So we wanted to know who went and how much did it cost. Under a Georgia Open Records Act request, the city gave us the list of 10 people who went on the trip, but not the costs. The Georgia Open Records Act, which allows citizens to examine documents relating to government business, generally expects an answer to such a request in 3 days.
Because the city wouldn't respond to our request for the records we had to ask the State Attorney General to help us. The Attorney General’s office mediates Open Records disputes.
Attorney General Chris Carr’s office wrote Atlanta city attorney Jeremy Berry to tell him the Attorney General's office found the city "failed to comply with either the spirit or letter of the Open Records Act" for our request for travel records and other requests.
“Its' absolutely not appropriate at all,” says Sara Henderson, executive director of Good Government group, Common Cause. She said it is disturbing that the city didn't turn over the travel costs in a timely fashion.
“You're hampering the whole idea of the law by not allowing people to have access within a reasonable amount of time. Two months is way too long. It definitely looks like something is being covered up,” says Henderson.
City Attorney Jeremy Berry's excuse for the delay was the city was swamped with Open Records requests, due in part to providing all those documents from the ongoing city hall bribery investigation to US Attorney and later reporters.
We finally got the records more than two months after our request.
The group stayed at Cape Grace, a luxury River front hotel for four days. Some of the bills we received seemed incomplete, and the exchange rate varies, but hotel costs due to a good exchange rate were around $7,700 dollars. There was also a luxury 7 passenger van rented for the week. Another $1310.
The real cost was in the flights Six of the ten people flew on the most expensive ticket possible. Delta's Business Class, complete with seats that fold into beds.
Mayor Reed, Chris Hicks, head of the city’s Film and Entertainment department, City Attorney Cathy Hampton, who would, soon after the trip, leave city government, and chief of Staff Candace Byrd all flew business class. So did Claire Angelle, director of International Affairs, and Chief Resilience Officer Stephanie Stuckey.
Their tickets cost between nearly $10,000 to more than $12,664 a ticket.
“That's not a wise way to spend tax payer dollars at all,” says Henderson. “Those people should sit in coach like any other taxpayer flying any other place in the world.”
Theia Washington Smith, head of Atlanta's Women's Entrepreneurship Initiative flew over on coach, and then the city paid an extra $4220 to upgrade to business class on the way back.
By comparison, Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy flew coach. Her ticket cost $2539. The Mayor's two man security team also flew coach.
Total cost of all flights: $80,876
“That airfare is absolutely absurd,” says Henderson. “You should have the common sense and conscience to know this this is a taxpayer funded trip. I'm going to have an appearance to spend the money wisely.”
The Atlanta City code says only the Mayor can fly business class on international flights. But, Mayor Reed’s spokesperson, Jenna Garland, gave me a city policy that says employees can fly business class if they get approval from their department heads or Commissioners.
Jenna Garland also told me an outside non-governmental organization is helping the taxpayers out by paying for the difference between coach and business class prices. She wouldn’t tell us the name of the organization. She did say philanthropic gifts have to go through the legislative process and we, and the taxpayers, will find out the details whenever that process starts.
Mayor Reed's office sent the following response:
“When Ambassador Andrew Young served as the 55th Mayor of Atlanta, he worked tirelessly to bolster the city’s international reputation, including by establishing a strong relationship between the City of Atlanta and the City of Cape Town, South Africa.
“In October of last year, Mayor Kasim Reed hosted Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille and a delegation of leaders from that city. During Mayor De Lille’s visit, she invited Mayor Reed and a delegation from Atlanta to visit Cape Town and continue to exchange best practices for a variety of initiatives and programs including the motion picture and television industry; municipal sustainability efforts; and small business and entrepreneurship incubation efforts.
“The City of Cape Town has one of the world’s oldest city-run small business and women’s entrepreneurship incubator. The City of Atlanta became the first in the nation to launch a similar program with the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. Founding Executive Director Theia Washington-Smith was able to meet with her counterparts in Cape Town and share lessons learned.
“Atlanta is now the nation’s leading city for film and television production, and the Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment is responsible for all permitting activities as well as industry promotion and workforce development. Executive Director Chris Hicks attended in this capacity, meeting with city and South African industry leaders.
“Chief Resilience Officer Stephanie Stuckey held extensive meetings with her colleagues, including Cape Town’s Chief Resilience Officer. Cape Town is also a member of The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative. The strong ties between Cape Town and Atlanta were again on display when Mayor Reed and Mayor De Lille attended the inaugural meeting of the Board of Directors of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy. Mayor Reed is the only sitting U.S. Mayor on this international board, which is chaired by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York City Mayor and philanthropist Michael R. Bloomberg.
“Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy and former City Attorney Cathy Hampton also participated in the trip, and offered their expertise in municipal regulatory concerns and management issues related to supporting entrepreneurship, resiliency and the film and entertainment industries. After serving the City of Atlanta for six years as City Attorney, Hampton has unparalleled expertise and wisdom to offer in an exchange of best practices between our two cities. Hampton accepted the invitation to attend the trip more than two months prior to her decision to leave her position with the City of Atlanta.
“In addition to a full schedule of meetings with Mayor De Lille’s senior team, Mayor Reed was also honored to be the only American invited to join a ceremony dedicating a new photo exhibition honoring South African President and civil rights hero Nelson Mandela, who passed away in 2013. This invitation was especially meaningful to Mayor Reed as the City of Atlanta shares a deep and unique bond with the nation of South Africa through the shared struggle for civil rights and full equality for black people and people of all races.
“Atlanta is the cultural and economic capital of the Southeast, and is growing in recognition as an international city. We are ranked #17 on the A.T. Kearney Global Index, one of only six U.S. cities in the top 20 and the only city in the Southeast in this group.
“Increasing our international ties and our global presence leads to a stronger, more vibrant economy and a thriving cultural community. The Office of International Affairs has welcomed more than 300 international delegations from across the world, and has participated in 45 mission trips to date. Atlanta’s international business climate continues to grow as a direct result: Sage, Worldpay and Bauerfeind USA area all examples of global businesses which chose to build major international offices in the City of Atlanta. The City was able to recruit Merchants e-Solutions, a payments processing company and a division of Latin American giant Cielo, S.A., after two trade missions to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, made in partnership with the State. These four business expansions represent more than 1,890 new jobs and more than $23 million in new investment.
“The entire metropolitan Atlanta region is also a magnet for Foreign Direct Investment, bringing new jobs and capital. FDI Intelligence Magazine recently ranked Atlanta a top city in the world for foreign direct investment in its 2016-17 Global Cities of the Future list. According to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Metro Atlanta is already home to approximately 2,500 international facilities employing nearly 135,000 people.
“Mayor Reed believes in taking advantage of every opportunity to strengthen our global reputation. Atlanta residents can take great pride in the international recognition our Mayor and City receive.
“Dale Russell’s attempts to manufacture a false controversy out of something that should be a source of pride is yet another attempt to disparage Mayor Reed and the hard-working men and women of the Reed Administration.
“Concerning the costs of the trip, City policy allows for senior officials to fly business class on international flights. Nonetheless, a non-governmental organization is covering the cost difference between the business class and economy class flights.”