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Not having a ball: inspector general investigates Dickens’ event expenses

By: Matt Scott

A $124,566.90 invoice from the Hyatt Regency Atlanta with note instructing that the funds should be paid as a “professional courtesy” sparked an investigation into Mayor Andre Dickens’ 2022 Senior Citizen Ball that found violations in city policies regarding hotels, purchases, and the use of public funds for private benefit.

The investigation from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) began after the discovery of a payment from the city to the Hyatt with a note that said, “procurement policy was not followed, services were rendered [without] a [purchase order]. Please process payment as a professional courtesy for Mayor Andre Dickens 2022 Senior Ball.”

City hotel policy prohibits the purchase of hotel rooms within the Atlanta metropolitan area; however, the payment covered, amongst other things, $7,230.10 in hotel rooms for both city employees and non-city individuals, including the mayor’s mother and sister. City policy also requires hotel rooms be booked at “the lowest logical rate,” but one of two rooms booked for Dickens was a suite costing $412.75 a night, more than double the $166.94 per night cost of the other rooms booked by the city.

The inspector general received no explanation for why it was necessary to book hotel rooms for city employees, and the report on the Senior Ball noted, “to the extent preparations were required ahead of the event/or wrap-up activity was required after the event, staff could have travelled home and returned to the hotel the following days.”

The Senior Ball is an annual event hosted by the mayor and planned by the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services (OCS). In early 2022, the city projected that year’s Senior Ball would cost $315,000 and intended to cover that cost through fundraising from local businesses and organizations. The actual cost of the ball came to $382,366.39, and city only fundraised between $215,000 – $238,000. The inspector general’s report does not state why the fundraising total is given as a range instead of an exact figure.

The remaining expenses for the ball, the majority of which went to the Hyatt, were paid for by the City of Atlanta.

In 2022, City of Atlanta procurement code requires that all payments over $20,000 go through the city’s procurement process, which includes a bidding process and oversight on expenditures. Additionally, any payment over $100,000 requires legislation from the City Council.

The 2022 Senior Ball did not go through city procurement processes. The OIG report notes, “although OCS contacted other venues to host the event, OCS did not secure the event space through a formalized bidding/procurement process… [and] after reserving the Hyatt, OCS did not initiate the process required to obtain a purchase order.”

The OIG report found that the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta (CFGA) acted as a fiscal agent to handle income and expenses for the 2022 Senior Ball. Under this arrangement, funds were held and dispensed by the Community Foundation, which allowed the Senior Ball planners to circumvent standard procurement policy. The report states, “sponsors were instructed to mail checks to [the city] but make checks payable to CFGA.” As invoices came in, the city sent them to CFGA for payment.

The city never entered into a written agreement with the Community Foundation regarding the 2022 Senior Ball or established any plans for what to do in the case funds were left over in the foundation’s account after all invoices were paid. Because of this arrangement, the report states, the city “could not confirm whether the funds raised for the event belonged to CFGA, the City, or both.”

The inspector general found that this financial arrangement may have “conferred a private advantage for CFGA, a private entity, in that CFGA… received benefits (and potential funds) for its involvement in a large-scale public event organized, staffed and fundraised by the City and for which the City assumed ultimate financial responsibility.”

The two city employees responsible for planning the event did not meet with the inspector general and left the department within months after the investigation began. Former OCS Commissioner Curtis Bailey did not respond to the inspector general’s interview request, and former OCS Facilities Coordinator Angela Thorton refused to be interviewed. According to their LinkedIn pages, Bailey left OCS in March and is now Director of Stakeholder Engagement at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Thorton now works for a private senior medical care company after leaving OCS in May 2023.

The inspector general found 11 other instances from July 2022 to January 2023 in which the mayor’s office requested invoices be processed for payment “as a professional courtesy.” The payments ranged from $263.60 to $5,130.20 for a variety of purposes including, “food/beverage services and decoration services to photo and video services.”

The mayor’s office says the use of the professional courtesy workaround is no longer permitted and that it may discipline staff for future violations of procurement rules.

The city began planning the 2023 Senior Ball at the start of this year and again booked the Hyatt to host the event. This year’s $145,000 Hyatt contract includes four suites and two premium suites. As of June 2023, event planners had not begun fundraising, and the City Council has not been asked to approve any expenses for this year’s Senior Ball, potentially leaving the public to pick up the tab once more.

Mayor Dickens told the inspector general he planned to reimburse the city for the cost of the hotel rooms for himself and his family.

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