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Inside the scandal 

Joe Reid was corrupted by power and money -- which, if you believe him, was business as usual in the Campbell administration

Joseph Reid is not a saint.

He's not the devil either.

The city's former deputy chief operating officer now sits in the moral no man's land of an informant -- suspected and prosecuted by law enforcement, hated as a traitor by former friends against whom he may testify.

Unless the improbable happens and the people recently indicted in the federal government's City Hall corruption case -- Spectronics Corp. executives Vertis McManus and Dorothy Rollins, and Atlanta officials Larry Wallace and Herb McCall -- finagle plea agreements, Reid will be called to provide eyewitness testimony to the most serious elements of the case against the four.

From the prosecution's -- and his own -- perspective, he's doing the right thing, accepting responsibility and showing contrition for his crimes, albeit too late to save himself embarrassment, derision and possible jail time.

"They're telling me it's going to be war," Reid says, referring to what his lawyers have told him to expect from the defendants and their attorneys. He puts the emphasis on the word "war" and chuckles to himself at the end of the sentence.

It's not laughter. It's nervous resignation, a sound he made with increasing frequency as prosecutors turned up the pressure on him, and it became clear what he would have to do. Reid, 51, knows he will be called an Uncle Tom, a conspirator in an investigation decried as racist by allies of Mayor Bill Campbell.

At the very least, he will be labeled an opportunist, a newly convicted felon. Critics will call Reid greedy for the payouts when he felt he could score them. And, they'll say he's now grasping to save his own skin after the cash spigot shut down. You can practically hear the defense attorneys sharpening their teeth.

Reid's life is in its third act. The curtain closed on the opening with Reid in drug rehab, but he beat the addiction and went on to find redemption in setting up and eventually directing Atlanta's $250 million empowerment zone, only to compromise his values, resign from his job and now take on the role as key cog in what is guaranteed to be the biggest political corruption case in the state in a decade.

In person, Reid is garrulous and effusive, smokes menthol cigarette after menthol cigarette, and talks like a likeable blowhard.

When he speaks about his desire to help poor people, it's clear he's not just mouthing words. Reid knows the people on the street, their stories, and they know him. His interaction is genuine, and there is none of the uneasy, class-defined patter one might expect from a person who has enjoyed the wealth and power Reid has.

Yet he admits that he fell in love with himself as a powerbroker, as a part of the City Hall flow of money and power. He loved the game of millionaire executives chasing multimillion dollar contracts.

Seen with a dispassionate eye, his crimes aren't particularly surprising for someone who grew up with nothing, and the prosecution will try to show that Reid worked in an atmosphere of corruption. That culture appealed to the darkest parts of a decent man who wanted to be recognized by the powerful and self-interested.

Lancaster, a rise and a fall
Reid grew up in Lancaster, S.C., about 45 minutes south of Charlotte, the kind of scrubby town people most often move away from and don't return to. He was the fourth of 14 children born to a father who worked as a laborer in the local foundry. The children slept in bunkbeds, head-to-toe. There were times that he had to walk door to door, asking for handouts.

"I know about being poor," he says. "I can sympathize with people on the street."

His mother would earn extra money by cleaning the house of a local white family, the Barnetts. This menial job for his mother became a bit of providence for Reid. He read his first book in their house, and had it not been for Ruth Barnett, he would not have gone to college. It wasn't a priority to his parents and there were no footsteps to follow.

"She took us in as a mission and took me in as a member of the family," Reid says. "It had a profound impact on me."

After high school, Reid got his bachelor's degree from Johnson C. Smith University, went on to study law at North Carolina Central University and the University of Georgia before dropping out to attend seminary. He became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1983, and was elected to the school's Student Christian League before serving as what he believes was the first black campus minister at UGA.

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