Here's what you can find out from city records about the costs and who pays for Mayor Shirley Franklin's frequent excursions to other cities and foreign lands: darn little.
A CL open-records request for financial records on the mayor's travels since Jan. 1, 2005, reveals a discrepancy between what she's reported and what officials are required to report. Rules require city employees to submit receipts or vouchers before being reimbursed; under the city's ethics law, if another entity pays for an employee's travel, the employee must file a disclosure form. The mayor has filed receipts for travel reimbursements, but she hasn't disclosed when organizations other than the city paid for her travel.
Among those who have funded the mayor's travel – including a trip earlier this year to Asia – is the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. In an e-mail response to questions, Franklin defended the chamber's largesse because the business group is one of the city's "essential and invaluable partners."
However worthy the chamber may be, the city's ethics code requires disclosure of gifts from "prohibited" entities, which the code defines as "any person, business, or entity that ... is seeking official action from the city, is seeking to do or does business with the city, represents a client who seeks official action or business, is a registered lobbyist, or has interests that may be substantially affected by the official's or employee's official duties."
Sounds like the chamber to me. In its quest to influence officials and city policies, the business group employs five lobbyists for local matters, according to State Ethics Commission records. In a 2004 ruling about another business association, Central Atlanta Progress, the city's ethics board declared the group a prohibited entity because it seeks to influence policy and lobbies city officials. Moreover, many of the chamber's leading members would themselves qualify as "prohibited" – they do business with the city or try to influence policies.
Even if the mayor had disclosed payments and reimbursements from the chamber, it's unclear that they would have been permitted. The ethics code allows gifts from prohibited groups under four conditions – "speaking engagements, participation on professional or civic panels, teaching, or attendance at conferences in an official capacity." The chamber's Asia trip doesn't appear to meet any of those criteria.
When it comes to the city's reimbursements to Franklin, it's difficult to determine how much taxpayers have spent.
Between January 2005 and June 2007 – the period covered by the records CL studied – Mayor Franklin trekked to Los Angeles; Savannah; Montreal; New York (three times); Chicago; Las Vegas (two times); Washington, D.C. (three times); Philadelphia; Vancouver, British Columbia; Boston; several cities in the Far East, although the only one that can be identified from the records is Seoul, Korea; Reno; Cleveland; St. Louis; Copenhagen, Denmark; Hinesville, Ga.; Miami; San Diego; New Paltz, N.Y.; Sanibel Island, Fla.; Phoenix; Kansas City; and Houston. Since then, she's traveled to Italy and Switzerland.
No records of at least one publicized mayoral trip were given to CL – in September 2006 Franklin went to China, in part to lobby for new Delta Air Line routes. A Delta spokesman said the airline didn't pay for the mayor's expenses. Franklin aides didn't respond to questions about who paid.
City files on Franklin's expense reports are spotty and confusing. Unlike most companies – and government agencies – the mayor doesn't itemize expenses for particular trips on a form with receipts attached. Expenses are scattered among city credit-card invoices, reimbursements to Franklin's personal credit cards and direct payments to vendors such as Delta.
In the two-and-a-half years studied by CL, taxpayers spent just shy of $30,000 on Franklin's travel. Of the more than two dozen trips that have some documentation in city files, more than half show no city payments for some necessary items, such as hotels.
The records provide tantalizing tidbits – Franklin ate Peking duck at the Las Vegas Hilton in May 2007. She stayed at the Silver Legacy Resort in Reno, where on Dec. 8, 2006, she watched a movie in her room ($5.99) and hired a limousine ($180). She took a $95 cab ride from Miami to Fort Lauderdale in March 2006.
But Franklin has never complied with the part of the code that requires disclosure when an entity other than the city picks up the tab for all her travel, food and lodging. Other officials, including City Council President Lisa Borders, have filed such reports.
The mayor and her aides interpret the rules to require reporting only when "prohibited" sources are involved, and her responses to CL make it clear she doesn't regard groups such as the chamber as prohibited. But the city has no registry of "prohibited" sources, and the definitions are so broad, they could include anyone seeking just about any action by an official.
In addition, some sections of the code make no distinction between prohibited and nonprohibited sources in requiring disclosure. Section 2-815 states that when a city official receives free travel, meals and lodging in connection with speaking engagements and other city business, he or she must file a reimbursement form. The code specifies that the form must include the "name and address of all persons or entities providing reimbursement" and the amount of the reimbursement.
In an e-mail, Franklin said that to her knowledge, there is no "central file" to provide that information about her travel. "[I]t is my recollection that my out of town trips were for city business and the expenses were covered by the City of Atlanta or the sponsoring nonprofit organization. Some of the organizations during that specific time period include the United States Conference of Mayors; the Atlanta Regional Commission; the Georgia Municipal Association; Atlanta Development Authority; Initiative for a Competitive Inner City; the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Milano School for Public Policy; International Center for the Training of Leaders and Authorities (CIFAL); United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); and CARE USA."
The problem is this: If the mayor doesn't disclose who's helping her live large on the world's stage, how can her bosses – the city's taxpayers – know if a generous donor is prohibited, or make an assessment of whether the gift is appropriate? After all, the last mayor, Bill Campbell, was accused of accepting travel gifts – before he went to prison.
There's no reason to believe the current mayor's oversights are in the league with Campbell's. While she often declares her support for transparent government, however, her travel records are, at best, murky.
The city of Atlanta's ethics code can be found at http://www.atlantaga.gov/government/boards/ethics_code_091306.aspx.
The ruling on officials accepting gifts from a business group can be found at http://www.atlantaga.gov/government/boards/boardofethics.fao2004-5.aspx.
Other resources on ethics can be found at http://www.atlantaga.gov/government/boards/ethicspublications.aspx?section=Code%20of%20Ethics.aspx
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