John Sugg’s response Mayor Reed’s allegations

*Note: This is a personal letter from CCGA board member John Sugg. The ideas and opinions herein do not in any way reflect the views of the CCGA board or the organization.*

January 11, 2012

The Hon. Kasim Reed
Mayor, City of Atlanta
55 Trinity Avenue SW
Atlanta GA 30303-0300

Dear Mayor Reed:

You recently sent a letter dated Jan. 5, 2012, to Common Cause of Georgia stating a number of grievances against the group, most of them inaccurate and unfounded. I do not speak for Common Cause. However, contained in the letter were several references to me and I’ll respond to them, as well as make general observations.

Summarizing my position: You promised an open and transparent airport procurement process. Common Cause for more than three years has advocated ethics reform in Atlanta, particularly as it applies to “pay to play,” which has been a factor in repeated scandals in Atlanta and at the airport. You have attacked Common Cause members since our first meeting with you last summer, and you have stiff-armed any material efforts to discuss “pay to play” and collaborate on ethics reform. While claiming “transparency,” you have caused the airport procurement to be totally opaque. Finally, in desperation as well-founded media reports focused on the appearance of favoritism in the airport procurement, you have attacked Common Cause members, including me. Those attacks can only be viewed as maladroit scheme to deflect attention from the only issues addressed by Common Cause: transparency in Atlanta procurement and curbing “pay to play.”

As a preface to the rest of this letter, your personal attacks against Common Cause members, including me, have not been responded to in kind by CCGA spokespeople, particularly CCGA Executive Director William Perry. We have tried to address policy issues, and you have attempted to deflect the matter to ad hominen attacks on CCGA board members and Perry. Since we have not responded in kind to your personal attacks, you have used the rhetorical artifice of claiming that since CCGA has not responded to your personal attacks then, you assert, CCGA concurs with your claims. As someone who has been to law school, you know that standing silent cannot be presumed as giving assent.

Those personal attacks by you have no bearing on the issue at hand, the legal if hardly ethical practice called “pay to play,” and since you have created a mendacious comparison as the substance for most of your personal attacks on CCGA board members, then those personal attacks are rendered without merit on their face.

That mendacious comparison is rooted in your assertions that any campaign contributions exceeding $250 by CCGA board members who have run for public office are equivalent to the massive “pay to play” contributions to you and other Atlanta politicians. Not all contributors seek work as vendors or contractors with a government entity to which the politician in question is seeking office. You are too smart of a man and too savvy a politician not to know the difference. You have not cited a single example of any CCGA board member taking a contribution that could be classed as “pay to play.” Politifact noted of one of board members who you have defamed: “[W]e couldn’t find any maximum donations from contributors doing business with the state or the federal government.”

Even if board members had taken contributions from potential vendors to political entities they sought to represent, none of them would have had the ability to unilaterally influence contracts, either directly or through subordinates, as would a mayor. On the other hand, the hundreds of thousands of dollars contributed to your campaigns by city vendors or would-be vendors involved in the recent food and retail procurement have created the perception – the reality is yet to be determined — among many citizens and the media that favoritism by you and your administration rewarded large campaign donors with lucrative concessions at the airport. However, while CCGA has noted your massive “pay to play” contributions, we have not cited any wrongdoing by you. We have sought only to strengthen the ethics of Atlanta governance. As I stated above, your response has been to engage in personal attacks for the purpose of derailing dialogue on city ethics.

As you know, I met with you in your office on Dec. 28 – several days before you wrote the letter to Common Cause. At that time – and please keep in mind that I have contemporaneous records of the meeting – I provided to you a detailed chronological account of my work on work on “play to pay” activities with CCGA and how that work related to my business affairs. A no time during our meeting did you substantially dispute my account. Thus, I can employ your own rhetorical device of claiming that you agreed with me because you didn’t disagree with my statements. However, eight days after that meeting, in your Jan. 5, 2012, letter, you again make the same allegations against me that you have made before. At no time have you made those allegations to my face, and I would assume you don’t have the courage of your convictions and/or that you know the falsity or irrelevance of your claims.

To be specific about your assertions regarding me:

1. You state in your Jan. 5, 2012, letter that I have a “conflicting interest” in the airport procurement. This conflict, you assert, is because a communications firm with which I have been associated, Alisias, “benefitted from a lucrative $750,000 annual contract with the Atlanta Housing Authority.” Further, you state, “During my administration, this contract was reduced, through fiscally responsible action … adversely impacting Mr. Sugg’s personal income.”

    1. The truth: During a confrontation you precipitated on Dec. 16, 2011, involving Perry and me, you described my purported “conflict” as occurring when “Dan Halpern fired Alisias.” Halpern is, of course, your chief fundraiser and one of the big winners selected by your administration in the airport concessions. Notably, you did not say that the AHA board or administration “fired” Alisia. Halpern’s “firing” of Alisias (as you describe the event) occurred on June 15, 2011, a significant date and one you did not mention in your letter.
    2. The truth: As I told you on Dec. 28, I began working on “pay to play” as a project for CCGA almost two years before it became an issue in your administration or the recent airport procurement. I and other CCGA board members were aware that every corruption scandal in Atlanta, particularly at the airport, had an element (if not the major element) of “pay to play.” Moreover, CCGA’s work to reform “pay to play” in Atlanta began in 2009, before you were elected mayor, a fact about which you are very much aware.
    3. The truth: Thus, all of the work I have done on “pay to play” prior to June 15, 2011, could not have been regarded in any way as a “conflict.” None existed, a fact that I told you on Dec. 28 and with which you did not vigorously disagree. The only “conflict” occurred because of actions by your political operative, Dan Halpern. I had no knowledge prior to June 15, 2012, when, as you say, Halpern intended to fire Alisas; thus no “conflict” existed. Since I had no role in, as you say, Halpern firing Alisias, I cannot be held accountable for creating a “conflict” in which I played no role. On the other hand, it’s quite plausible that you through your political operative, Halpern, might have created a political situation in which you could seek to mute my voice by claiming a “conflict.”
    4. The truth: I am not nor have I ever been a principal, partner or shareholder with Alisias. Thus, I have no equity in the firm. Alisias’ fortunes are not directly related to my income. My employment with Alisias was not enhanced or decreased by a single penny due to my work with Common Cause’s “pay to play” efforts. My own consulting firm has never had a contract with a city or airport vendor.
    5. The truth:  You have no knowledge about my income, and whether it was impacted by the reduction of Alisias’ contract with AHA. That said, your statement regarding my income is false.
    6. The truth: As was well documented to AHA, the budget for Alisias was well within the norms for communications activities for major public housing authorities across the nation, and was well within the norm of major government agencies in Atlanta (e.g., MARTA, APS). AHA is considered one of the most fiscally sound housing authorities in the nation, and Alisias’ work was both highly effective and rigorously efficient, as attested to by AHA executives. Thus, there is nothing “fiscally responsible” about, as you call it, Halpern’s firing of Alisias. It was merely raw politics. Moreover, much of Alisias’ work directly benefited programs for school children, and involved scholarly research by a number of academics (and by me)that would have produced an incredibly rich knowledge base for Atlanta, especially the many tens of thousands of people who have been impacted by AHA. This work, including my projects, would have created a tremendous advancement in Atlanta’s African-American narrative, which you have now dismantled. Thus, as you say, since Halpern fired Alisias, the result has been damage to school children and academic endeavors, scuttle a major initiative at African-American history, and cripple critical communications activities to HUD, Congress and stakeholders in Atlanta.

2. In your Jan. 5, 2012, letter, you state that Perry “has been consulting with and obtaining advice from” me, as a CCGA board member. You imply that such counseling is tainted because of my alleged “conflict” noted above.

The truth: So? All board members consult with Perry as our executive director.  We’re a private organization. While board members share information – as is our right – we did not attack you, and, as you know, I specifically counseled Perry and others that we should not attack you.

3. You state in your Jan. 5, 2012, letter that my “financial ties and vested interests were improperly concealed and hidden from Mr. Perry.”

    1. The truth: Perry is an employee of the board. It is unfortunate that he wasn’t aware of my business activities, but it is not an employee’s role. However, the relevant persons at CCGA – members of the executive committee and officers – were well aware of my business activities, as well as those of all members of the board.
    2. The truth: My business activities are very public. For example, my work on behalf of AHA is well documented here, here and here. And here you can see a news report on how, as you describe it, Halpern was “fired” by Alisias; I am mentioned. My Facebook pages includes mention of my Alisias work. Clearly, my activities are a matter of public record. This may be an oversight on Perry’s part, but it certainly wasn’t concealment by me.
    3. The truth: Since the bulk of work on my work on CCGA’s “pay to play” initiative was prior to June 15, 2011, when, as you say, Halpern “fired” Alisias, no conflict could have existed, and thus any advice to Perry could not have been prejudicial. After June 15, any alleged “conflict” would have stemmed from actions by your political operative, Halpern, and I cannot be held responsible for his actions.
    4. The truth: You state at the end of your Jan. 5 letter that “influence exerted for one’s own pecuniary gain, or because of undisclosed motives, is concerning.” Considering the context of your letter, at least in part you are defaming me. For more than 25 years I have written about the corrosive nature of “pay to play”; thus my motives are clear, and if I associate with like-minded people, that is my right. As a private citizen, I have no obligation to disclose motives – especially when my actions and communications have been accurate and necessary to illuminate actions that government is seeking to conceal, as is the case in my Sept. 14, 2011, email. The only issue that can be construed as “influence exerted for one’s own pecuniary gain, or because of undisclosed motives” is the substance of numerous news report concerning your administration and the impact of “pay to play” on the airport procurement. This statement by you is surely a supreme example of people in glass houses throwing stones.

4. Your Jan. 5, 2012, letter refers to a personal email sent by me to six members of the CCGA board on Sept. 14, 2011. Your description of my email states: “Rather than clairvoyance of impending news coverage, this email is a precursor to a personally motivated contrived effort to leverage CCG’s resources for personal endeavors by creating question and doubt about where none is warranted – or supported – by the facts.”

    1. The truth: Your letter states that my email “precedes any meaningful media coverage of the Procurements, which occurred only after (the city) made its recommendations for contract awards.” That is clearly an untrue statement by you. My Sept. 14 email is prefaced by a link to a “meaningful” article by veteran Atlanta reporter David Pendered on the Saporta Report. Moreover, there were certainly other “meaningful” news report prior to the city’s recommendations, including those from the WAGA Fox 5 “I-Team.”
    2. The truth: The “question and doubt” about the airport procurement stem from a torrent of media reports. Those media reports cite many substantive concerns over the apparent favoritism in the airport procurement. Common Cause warned of the dangers of “pay to play” long before I was a board member. My work over almost two years on the CCGA board was prompted in part by 11 states adopting laws curbing play to play, by Los Angeles voting by a 75 percent majority of voters to curb “pay to play,” and by Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s progressive actions to end “pay to play” in a city, like Atlanta, famous for the scandals the practice encouraged. That national concern over the dangers of “pay to play” coupled by apparent favoritism in your administration regarding the airport procurement was not manufactured by me or anyone else, other than your actions.
    3. The truth: You may not have much knowledge of how the media work, as evidenced by your taxpayer-paid-for publicist, but it takes time to do “meaningful” journalism.  My Sept. 14 email makes it clear that two news organizations had filed Open Records Requests with your administration, and your administration had stonewalled producing records that would have illuminated whether favoritism was involved in the initial procurement cancellation. As I wrote in the email: “The reason I’m sending this is that the Mayor told CCGA that the process should be above-board and transparent. Yet, without knowing which companies caused the cancellation of the procurement, we can’t determine whether any of those companies had connections to the Mayor.” It’s noteworthy, that every element in my email of Sept. 14 was accurate. Your claim that my assertions were not “warranted” or “supported” by facts is bogus. Much of the email contains facts that have been amply attested to in the media; other portions were discussions among journalists who were working on “meaningful” coverage. It was not “clairvoyance” but it was information discussed by good journalists. Moreover, it’s clear from the email that journalists covering the issue also had already obtained substantial information and documents – despite obstruction and stonewalling from the city – and were working on news coverage. Those articles have continued to this day, and have continued to focus on the incredible convergence of your friends and supporters amassing hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenues from the airport concessions – while equally credible vendors, lacking massive contributions to your campaign, were denied concessions.
    4. The truth: Despite your public assertions, the airport procurement was not transparent. It was totally not transparent regarding what the public and media knew.
    5. The truth: Considering, first, that my email was accurate, and that accuracy was played out in eventual news coverage, it’s worth observing that CCGA was urged – by me – to pay attention to news accounts but not take any action that would be prejudicial to you. I wrote in the email (but not included in your letter):  “I’m not sure CCGA should initiate something. I have not suggested anything. … However, we initiated the ‘pay to play’ effort, and the Mayor assured us of transparency. We might want to send a note to the Mayor, refreshing his claim of transparency. Or, we might offer a response when the news articles hit.” Thus, the most awful thing I’m accused of in the email is suggesting more dialogue with you.

5. Although I’ll let others in Common Cause address your issues regarding the organization as a whole, at the end of your letter you cite a Dec. 16, 2012, incident I witnessed. You spin the incident as if CCGA had refused to meet with you. That is utterly false, attested to by a recording made of the encounter. Specifically:

    1. The truth: On Dec. 15, in the midst of a flurry of angry emails and phone calls by you to CCGA board members, you castigated Perry for a blog item he wrote, and you referenced my Sept. 14, 2011, private email by me given to members of the CCGA board. You demanded a meeting the next day, and since the subject was the two documents, I opted to go. After all, it has been my habit during 40 years as a journalist to confront critics; I would expect the same of a mayor. Perry and I were quite willing to have a productive discussion on ethics policies and “pay to play,” although we were well aware of your tactic to deflect such discussion by irrelevant and/or untrue character assassinations.
    2. The truth: On Dec. 16, you entered the lobby area in your office, and immediately launched into a shouting attack aimed at Perry and me, the substance of which was to make the claims that I had a conflict because your political operative, Dan Halpern, “had fired Alisias.” You proceeded to demand which members of Common Cause could speak for the group – you mentioned Emmet Bondurant. Perry and I told you that it wasn’t up to you to make decisions for Common Cause, especially decisions about who speaks for our organization. During this encounter, members of your staff converged in what was a threatening manner. Considering your shouting and angry demeanor on Dec. 16, and with no way for Perry to address allegations regarding my email, it was hardly prudent for Perry to meet with you without a witness.
    3. The truth: More than half a year ago you promised dialogue on “pay to play.” You have not done so. You promised that members of the selection committee would be revealed as soon as the body was finalized. You did not do so (you may have told that to the AJC editorial board, but that is a private body and not the “public”). You now claim that you want an “amicable” discussion with CCGA. Yet you have used personal attacks as ruse to derail discussion, and the only reason an “amicable” discussion did not ensue on Dec. 16 was due to your behavior.

 

Sincerely,

 

John F. Sugg

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