Business as usual (Atlanta style) 

Motor Transport at center of new chapter in City Hall graft-o-rama

Just when you thought things just couldn't get any more sordid down at City Hall, there's word that investigators are looking into Bureau of Motor Transport Services accounts that were used to buy Armani suits and travel junkets.

The accounts in question allegedly contained as much as $500,000 and investigators are trying to figure out how the money got there. Two sources familiar with the probe say the accounts were filled with money from a scheme in which the department over-ordered parts so it could then pocket refunds from unused parts. Investigators also are trying to figure out whether scrap (used parts and oil, etc.) -- among other sources of income -- was being sold and funneled to the accounts in question.

Acting City Attorney Rosalind Rubens Newell confirmed in mid-March that Motor Transport Bureau head Jonathan Dodd resigned amid allegations that he was using money from a vending machine account for his personal benefit. Problems in the department were uncovered when the city's Internal Auditor Leslie Ward began looking into Motor Transport in February after an anonymous source contacted Mayor Shirley Franklin's staff about possible improprieties.

What Ward found prompted her to turn over her inquiry to the city attorney's office. Ward says she cannot comment on her findings, but she did say a scheduled audit of the Accounts Payable Division of the Department of Finance has been moved up because of what she found in Motor Transport.

The initial account of Dodd's resignation was a ho-hum, small banana corruption story tucked into the third page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Metro section. And that's because the Motor Transport vending machine fund normally only generates about $4,000 per year.

As part of its contract, the city allows individual departments to keep whatever money they spend in their vending machines. There is little or no oversight of those usually small accounts. City Hall veterans say the cash is normally used for anything from office parties to sending flowers to a sick employee.

But when it came to Motor Transport's account, say two sources with close ties to the Franklin administration, Dodd could have sent flowers to every sick person in Atlanta.

The department allegedly was routinely over-ordering automobile parts and then sending the excess parts back to the manufacturers for a refund, the source says. That money was then transferred into one of at least two vending accounts. Investigators also are looking into an $80,000 check from United Water for fuel consumption found in the bank accounts.

What may be even more interesting is what was allegedly being purchased with the vending machine money -- Armani suits costing $3,000-$5,000 and extensive travel expenses, including trips to Las Vegas and charges for a Hawaii junket. A City Hall source with direct knowledge of the expenditures confirmed that Creative Loafing's information about the expenses was consistent with information the source had obtained.

Dodd could not be reached for comment. Jan McIntryre, the acting head of Motor Transport, says she cannot talk about the allegations. She did say she is cooperating with investigators. She referred inquiries to Newell.

Newell says she has subpoenaed documents in connection with the case and is awaiting their arrival.

"We are investigating irregularities with the vending account, but as for how big they turn out to be, I don't have a crystal ball," she says.

Mayor Shirley Franklin adds that Newell has been keeping her abreast of the investigation and that an investigator with the Atlanta Police Department has been teamed with the city attorney's office to help with the case.

A member of the department's major fraud unit is working the investigation, City Hall sources have told CL; The name of the investigator could not confirmed.

Herb McCall, the city's former head of administrative services, was Dodd's immediate supervisor. People familiar with City Hall politics widely regard the former Motor Transport head as McCall's protege. Jerry Froelich, McCall's attorney, would not comment about whether investigators with the Atlanta Police Department or the city attorney's office have contacted his client about the case.

McCall currently faces federal obstruction of justice charges in the Atlanta corruption probe.

Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, says his office could not say whether it has been made aware of the Motor Transport investigation. An FBI source familiar with the Atlanta corruption probe would not comment on the Motor Transport case.

This is not the first time the Bureau of Motor Transport Services, with Dodd as its head, has invited controversy. In 1997, Dodd was outed for smashing up three city-owned vehicles over a three-year span. Instead of reporting the incidents and getting the cars fixed at a body shop with which the city usually works, Dodd took them to a separate shop. The repairs cost more than $8,000. Dodd was suspended for five days without pay for the incidents and couldn't drive home city-owned vehicles for three months.

In 1996, Dodd spent twice the amount authorized by the city to clean up toxic waste on city property and circumvented procurement laws by declaring the clean-up an emergency.

Of course, these problems are relatively minor compared to the current investigation, but they also ignore the sorry way the Bureau of Motor Transport Services was run during the Campbell administration.

The findings of a June 2001 audit commissioned by the city's own finance department show an organization in disarray. Among the gems: After the city's fleet was cut by about 1,000 vehicles in 1999, Motor Transport racked up $1.69 million in overtime expenses. The department didn't do much better the following year with $1.18 million in overtime -- 11 times more than what was budgeted. What's more, staff members spent just over 50 percent of their time doing work for which they could account, meaning time spent actually repairing vehicles. The industry average for billable hours is 65-75 percent.

The numbers seemed to confirm that all the critical arrows fired at Motor Transport over the years -- most recently in Atlanta's mayoral election where Robb Pitts was fond of pushing for the department's privatization -- were on target. The city's finance department has already recommended making changes to the department that could save the Atlanta nearly $14 million over the next four years and $3 million this year alone.

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