City of Atlanta Covering Up for Clerk’s Ethical Lapses
(APN) ATLANTA — The City Council of Atlanta is considering a written reprimand for Municipal Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson for misuse of City property; however, the reprimand inexplicably fails to address a number of findings involving Johnson, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.
Because there were only eight Council Members at Monday’s Full Council meeting, on July 18, 2011, making up only a slim quorum, Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) was able to hold up Council approval of the letter of reprimand in a 7 to 1 vote. Eight votes, or a majority of the fifteen member Council, would have been needed to approve the letter.
“My no vote is gonna mean something today, so watch out! Hallelujah!” Moore exclaimed at Monday’s meeting.
APN obtained a copy of the revised letter of reprimand from the staff in the Municipal Clerk’s office.
The Committee on Council went into Executive Session Monday, prior to the Council meeting, to discuss the letter, and while behind closed doors, marked-up the letter, making numerous changes.
“The City’s Integrity Line Steering Committee, comprised of the offices of the City of Atlanta Law Department Compliance Officer, Ethics Officer and City Auditor, performed an independent investigation into allegations filed against you by terminated employee Sababa Akili,” the letter states.
“The resulting investigative report dated June 20, 2011, concluded that you abused your supervisory authority by improperly using a City-funded vehicle and two subordinate employees during business hours on September 16, 2008 for your own personal benefit,” the letter states.
“As a result, the Ethics Board levied against you a fine in the amount of $801.55, which you have paid in full. Based upon the findings and conclusions of the Integrity Line Steering Committee, the decision and order of the Board of Ethics and a specific recommendation garnered from Councilmember’s, I have requested that the Council here with accept and issue this communication to you as a formal Letter of Reprimand to be placed in your personnel file,” the letter states.
Sababa Akili–who previously served as Information Systems Manager for the Municipal Clerk’s Office and was fired on March 03, 2010–wrote a letter dated March 28, 2010, to Leslie Ward, City Auditor; Jeffrey Norman, Compliance Manager; and Ginny Looney, Ethics Officer, making several allegations about Johnson.
Councilwoman Moore forwarded the complaint to the City’s Integrity Line Steering Committee, resulting in an investigation that took about thirteen months.
The Board of Ethics–which is part of the City’s Integrity Line Steering Committee–issued its findings first on May 19, 2011. As a result of these findings, Johnson and the Ethics Office signed off on a settlement agreement, where Johnson agreed to pay the fine.
Jabu Sangova, Associate Ethics Officer, told APN that the Ethics Office reviewed all the allegations against Johnson, but only decided to move forward on the issues involving the rental vehicle. She said all the other issues were either unsubstantiated or did not fall under the City’s ethics code.
The Integrity Line Steering Committee issued a separate report on June 20, a copy of which was obtained by Atlanta Progressive News.
This report details a number of ethical violations above and beyond the misuse of the rented vehicle and on-the clock city employees to move personal furniture. According to APN’s analysis of the report, there are several findings for which neither the Integrity Line Steering Committee nor the Board of Ethics recommended sanctions.
Moreover, Council President Mitchell’s letter of reprimand for Johnson, whether in original or amended form, inexplicably did not address several of the findings in the reports.
(1) Johnson shipped personal items to her son in Africa on the City’s Fedex account. The City’s investigation was able to confirm this, but did not recommend a sanction because they said they could not confirm Akili’s claim that it was a television. Johnson claimed they were “pencils, tee shirts, caps, etc., that had been collected from various sources such as the Mayor’s office or council members.”
However, the Integrity Steering Committee made no effort for verify the accuracy of Johnson’s claims. They did not interview any Council Members, their staff, nor executive branch staff to see if they recall donating pens and pencils to Africa. There is no mention of the issue in the letter of reprimand.
(2) Johnson used city equipment for personal gain. Several city employees testified that they witnessed, and she admitted, using city computers, printers, and copiers, for personal items for her daughter, including invitations, personal photographs, and typing for her daughter’s volleyball team.
There is no mention of Johnson’s admitted misuse of city property in the letter of reprimand, although the two reports characterize the ethical lapses as minimal.
(3) Johnson sent city employees to run personal errands for her. According to one city employee, she sent one city employee on such tasks as “sitting in the dentist office with her adult son and taking her daughter to appointments.”
“Ms. Monique Johnson [another city employee]… replied that on occasions, at Ms. Johnson’s request, she had picked up Ms. Johnson’s daughter from school and added that this was in fact done during normal working hours,” the Integrity Line Steering Committee report states.
(4) Johnson submitted several receipts for reimbursement for personal items from various department stores, including Ross, Target, Wal-Mart, and Dillards, which Akili and others claimed were altered; the reports noted the receipts were illegible. In addition, the reports noted that Johnson engaged in a practice of turning in receipts long after the date of purchase, sometimes months or years after the fact. There is no mention of the illegible or late receipts in the letter of reprimand.
“Ms. Jones was asked if she had problems or concerns when submitting receipts for reimbursement and she replied ‘yes, at times.’ She stated that during these times, she would inform the Deputy Municipal Clerk of her discomfort and in turn she would be told to just do what she was told and let the matter fall on the Municipal Clerk… Ms. Jones recalls one instance where she was given a receipt and the date had been erased; erasure shavings were still present.”
“Mr. Webb… stated he was shown receipts that appeared to have been changed… He said that upon reviewing the receipts, it was pretty obvious that some had been changed, i.e., lined out or had correctional white out used on them.”
(5) As it relates to the misuse of the rental vehicles rented with city funds, “As the investigation continued, it was established that Ms. Johnson’s account of the rental process greatly differed from available documentation.” There is no mention of these discrepancies in her letter of reprimand.
(6) The Board of Ethics also determined that Johnson failed to disclose that her travel expenses were paid by a non-city source to attend a conference in Chicago, Illinois, in May 2009. There is no mention of this lack of disclosure in the letter of reprimand.
(7) Johnson inappropriately billed for both per diem and food costs for an October 2008 conference in Washington, DC. The letter of reprimand omits this fact.
In an interview with Atlanta Progressive News, Mr. Akili alleged some Council Members were protecting Johnson because he had witnessed Johnson previously help Council Members change the dates on their late disclosure forms. He added that several Council Members have received their own fines from the Board of Ethics.
In explaining his support for the letter of reprimand, rather than a stronger sanction, Councilman Ivory Young (District 3) told the Committee on Council that he did not like the fact that Mr. Akili made his allegations about Ms. Johnson only after he was fired, not shortly after the alleged acts occurred.
Meanwhile, Yolanda Adrean (District 8) said she would support the reprimand because there were no prior issues in Johnson’s personnel file.
Moore responded that there was more than one issue addressed in the current reports, although she did not state publicly what they were, in explaining her non-support for the letter of reprimand; she believes stronger sanctions are appropriate.
(END / 2011)