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National Politics

  • Are flowers and a card enough? On Melania Trump's 48th birthday, President Donald Trump worried Thursday that his gift might not be sufficient. Trump got an interview with 'Fox and Friends' going by giving a shout-out to the first lady: 'So, happy birthday to Melania,' he said. Asked what he had gotten his wife, Trump said: 'I better not get into that because I may get in trouble. Maybe I didn't get her so much.' Justifying that, he added, 'You know, I'm very busy.' He later offered that he had gotten Mrs. Trump 'a beautiful card and some beautiful flowers' and added that she's a wonderful wife. The president isn't the only one who's been busy. The first lady planned Tuesday's state dinner for the president of France. Last weekend, she attended the Houston funeral of former first lady Barbara Bush. And she and the president recently hosted the Japanese prime minister and his wife at the Trumps' Florida estate for a two-day visit. Mrs. Trump's office said she'll spend her birthday with family.

Local Politics

  • Just days before former Mayor Kasim Reed left office, his administration showered select city employees with more than $518,000 in bonuses, and gifts that were presented during an “executive holiday party” at City Hall. The spending spree has left the police union outraged, taxpayers fuming and council members questioning its legality. During his last days in power, Reed awarded at least $350,000 in bonuses to his senior staff; ordered $42,500 in checks to the eight members of his security detail; gave away $36,000 by drawing names out of a hat during a holiday party raffle in December; and awarded $31,000 to lip sync and ugly sweater contest winners, also at the party. But none of the holiday giving came out of Reed’s wallet — it all belonged to city taxpayers. And that’s not the full extent of the spending. LEARN MORE: See who got bonuses from former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed Former human resources commissioner Yvonne Yancy handed out an additional $57,500 in bonuses to 11 members of her staff just days before she left City Hall for the private sector, on Dec. 31. In response to questions from the AJC, Reed issued a three-paragraph statement. “Rewarding employees for service and performance is not new and has been common practice in the City of Atlanta,” says the statement, issued through Reed’s spokesman. “These bonuses were appropriate and Mayor Reed believes that the individuals who received the bonuses were worthy of them based upon their contributions to the City of Atlanta’s unprecedented growth and fiscal stability.” Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore called the spending “disgusting” and “illegal.” “It just reminded me of someone having money and throwing it in the air and letting everybody catch it,” Moore said. “It’s just unconscionable. Let’s just make it clear: It’s not legal to do this. Just make it point-blank clear. He had absolutely, positively no authority to issue any of that to anybody under any circumstance. “The mayor can only do what is authorized by the council. He did not go through the proper channels.” Moore pointed to a city ordinance that prohibits increasing “the salaries or other remuneration in any form of any officer or employee of the city during the fiscal year, except by ordinance” approved by the City Council. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose campaign was endorsed by Reed, did not respond to the AJC’s questions about the appropriateness of using taxpayer money for contests and raffles. She also declined to respond when asked if the bonuses were appropriate and whether she would award them at the end of the year. “Decisions around the bonuses were made without input from the current administration,” the statement says. “However, Mayor Bottoms will continue to carefully evaluate best practices, prioritizing ways in which City business can be conducted in a transparent and responsible manner.” ‘A bunch of questions here’ The city’s code stipulates several circumstances under which employees may receive bonuses. Police officers can receive retention bonuses of $3,000 after 5 years of service. Some employees can receive 2-percent bonuses for being bilingual or by earning a special certification. The city also provides longevity bonuses up to $750 for employees who have been with the city for 25 years or more. City ordinances do not appear to authorize payments or bonuses of arbitrary amounts for unspecified reasons. “There are a bunch of questions here,” said Councilman Howard Shook, who chairs the City Council’s Finance/Executive Committee. “I couldn’t think of a worse time to dole out bonuses of this nature from a political perspective. Everything is so unsettled. Morale is so low. Everyone is waiting for the next piece of bad news. “Obviously, we are all now going to contemplate what guardrails need to be put around this process.” The Georgia State Constitution’s gratuities clause prohibits public agencies from granting donations, gratuities and “extra compensation to any public officer, agent, or contractor after the service has been rendered or the contract entered into.” An unofficial opinion from the Georgia Attorney General in 2002 dealt with whether public hospital authorities could offer prospective employees signing bonuses. It said they could “if the authority receives a substantial benefit in exchange for the signing bonus.” LEARN MORE: See the unofficial opinion from 2002 here Georgia State Rep. Chuck Martin, a Republican, and chairman of the state house’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee, said the gratuities clause generally prohibits taxpayer money from being spent without taxpayers receiving something in return. “If those types of bonuses hadn’t been done previously, it would seem to me to call into question the reason for them here,” said Martin, a former Mayor of Alpharetta. “If I was a taxpayer in Atlanta, I would certainly wonder: Wouldn’t that half-a-million dollars been better spent recruiting people to work for me in 2018 and beyond?” Reed did not address the AJC’s questions about whether metrics were used to determine the amounts of bonuses; nor did he say what the city would receive in return for giving the bonuses. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Carr did not respond to an email about whether the gratuities clause applied to the City of Atlanta’s recent bonuses. Shook said he couldn’t recall similar payouts during his 16 years on the City Council. Evaluate policies, watchdog says Reed’s last-minute spending raises yet more questions about the former mayor’s penchant for running up large bills at taxpayer expense. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported last month that Reed made nearly $300,000 in charges to his city-issued credit card during his last three years in office, with more than half of that coming in 2017. Those charges included five-star hotels, chauffeured luxury car service, expensive business-class airfare and more than $20,000 in restaurant bills. After the AJC/Channel 2 story, the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a subpoena asking the city to turn over his credit card statements and other documents as part of its ongoing investigation into City Hall corruption. Mike Koblentz, chairman of the Northwest Community Alliance, said the bonuses awarded by Reed should trigger an intensive audit of city operations, beyond the regularly scheduled reviews conducted by the city. Koblentz said he did not support Bottoms in the mayor’s race, but he has become a supporter of hers since she took office. He said Bottoms needs to call out the raises for what they are. “I think she understands she needs to make a complete separation from the last administration,” Koblentz said. “When you find out about this you need to be tougher and say this is unacceptable.” Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch, said the city may need to reevaluate their policies about bonuses and holiday gifts, if this kind of spending is allowable. “People work really hard to pay their tax bills, and we expect it to go for city services, and we still got a lot of potholes in the city, we got a lot of needs in terms of infrastructure,” Coyle said. “They (taxpayers) want to make sure that dollars are invested in a way that moves the mission forward for the organization.” ‘His Oprah Winfrey moment’ The bonuses didn’t sit well with Atlanta police Lt. Steve Zygaj, the president of the local police union. Zygaj was outraged by the executive bonuses after Reed told officers for years there wasn’t enough money in the budget to give them to police officers, or to boost starting salaries for beat cops. The department is “hemorrhaging officers left and right,” Zygaj said. “Don’t lie to us and say there’s no money when there’s bonuses for a lip sync contest,” Zygaj said. “Give me a break.” Reed’s statement did not address the AJC’s question about the appropriateness of giving away tax dollars to holiday contest winners. “The taxpayers have suffered and suffered and suffered,” Zygaj said. “Thank God I can’t afford to live in the city, because I would lose my freaking mind.” Rank-and-file employees see these bonuses as a slap in the face, said Ken Allen, a former police union president and cop who retired from APD after 30 years. Allen, who now works full-time for the union, said his organization approached Jim Beard, the city’s chief financial officer, with a plan to provide $500 bonuses to beat cops who go a full year without a patrol car accident. Allen said he figures the bonuses would cost the city $500,000 if every cop who responds to emergency calls drove without incident for a year. But that would save millions in liabilities. Allen said Beard told the union there was no money in the budget for a safe-driving bonus system. Beard received a $15,000 bonus from Reed, and processed payments to some 34 prize winners at the December holiday luncheon, according to city records. “I guess Reed had to have his Oprah Winfrey moment,” Allen said. “‘You get 10 grand, you get 10 grand!’” Former Mayor Kasim Reed responds  At the end of Mayor Reed’s term, the City of Atlanta was on its best financial footing in 40 years. Atlantans benefited from eight consecutive balanced budgets, zero property tax increases, zero water rate increases, nine consecutive credit-rating increases, more than $200 million in cash reserves and a 37 percent reduction in crime.  As a result, Mayor Reed awarded performance bonuses to members of his Cabinet and senior team — who all played a significant role in contributing to this record of achievement.  Rewarding employees for service and performance is not new and has been common practice in the City of Atlanta. From 2008 to 2012, the City of Atlanta employed a gift card program used to reward employees in various departments. Also, in 2013, the City of Atlanta Innovation Delivery Team launched a city-wide employee ideas competition which rewarded employees for their ideas on how the City could reduce waste, cut red tape and save money on operations.  These bonuses were appropriate and Mayor Reed believes that the individuals who received the bonuses were worthy of them based upon their contributions to the City of Atlanta’s unprecedented growth and fiscal stability. — Jeff Dickerson, Reed spokesman  Our coverage  The AJC’s aggressive coverage of City Hall includes previous reporting on former Mayor Kasim Reed’s use of a city-issued credit card that resulted in Reed refunding taxpayers $12,000.  The AJC has also reported on Reed’s bid to use unclaimed salary to cover $40,000 in luxury airfare. At Reed’s direction, City Council donated the money to a dormant nonprofit, which then returned the money to cover the travel expenses.  Federal prosecutors have sought records from the city in both matters. Count on the AJC for continuing investigative coverage of City Hall.

Latest from Jamie Dupree

Georgia Politics

  • The deadline to register to vote in Georgia’s primary election is Tuesday. The May 22 primary election will feature Republican and Democratic races for Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, the General Assembly and more. Georgia citizens can sign up to vote online at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov or through the GA SOS app for Apple and Android cellphones. In addition, voter registration applications can be submitted by mail. Tuesday is also the deadline for voters to update their addresses. “The right to vote for our public officials should never be taken for granted,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp in a statement. “In the Peach State, it is easy to vote and hard to cheat, and I strongly encourage all eligible voters to take part in these important contests.” Georgia 2018 election information List of candidates: Available at elections.sos.ga.gov/GAElection/CandidateDetails April 24: Deadline to register to vote April 30: In-person early voting begins May 22: Primary election July 24: Primary runoffs Nov 6: General election More information: Visit PoliticallyGeorgia.com for full coverage of Georgia’s key races.

News

  • An 17-year-old faces a vehicular homicide charges nearly a month after police said she crashed a car, killing her classmate on senior skip day.  Prosecutors said Cristina Pavon-Baker was driving at 106 mph when she crashed a Mini Cooper into a tree and killed 18-year-old passenger Makayla Penn, Channel 2 Action News reported.  The March 26 crash occurred on I-75 North at the Jonesboro Road exit in Clayton County. The vehicle, “traveling at a high rate of speed,” failed to navigate the turn on the exit ramp, went airborne, overturned several times and ended up hitting a tree, uprooting it in a wooded area, the GSP said at the time of the crash. Pavon-Baker was cut out of the car and taken to Grady Memorial Hospital for her injuries.  Prosecutors said Pavon-Baker was on Snapchat before the crash.  The two girls attended Community Christian School and were participating in senior skip day at the time of the crash.  The judge gave Pavon-Baker a $31,000 bond and ordered her to surrender her passport, Channel 2 reported. She was also ordered to not drive and to stay off of Snapchat. 
  • Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, has withdrawn his name from consideration, multiple news outlets are reporting. >> MORE COVERAGE: Embattled VA nominee Ronny Jackson accused of drunken driving, drug use | Jamie Dupree: Trump pick to head VA in trouble as Senators postpone hearing | Senate postpones hearing for Trump VA pick Ronny Jackson amid 'serious allegations' | More trending news 
  • The Latest on a Wisconsin refinery explosion that injured several people (all times local): 2:15 p.m. Authorities have expanded the evacuation zone around a Wisconsin refinery that was rocked by an explosion and are now saying anyone within a three-mile (five-kilometer) radius should leave. Douglas County authorities also say those in a 10-mile (16-kilometer) corridor south of the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior should leave due to smoke coming from the site. Evacuees are being told to gather at Yellowjacket Union at the University of Wisconsin-Superior or at Four Corners Elementary School in Superior. It isn't clear how many people the evacuation order will effect. The refinery is in an industrial area, but there's a residential neighborhood within a mile to the northeast. The corridor downwind to the south is sparsely populated. At least 11 people were injured in the Thursday morning blast. A spokeswoman for Essentia Health says one person was seriously injured, while another nine being treated at Essentia hospitals in Superior and nearby Duluth, Minnesota, have non-life-threatening injuries. St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth received one patient who is in fair condition. ___ 12:55 p.m. The number of people injured in a refinery explosion in Wisconsin has grown to at least 11. Essentia Health spokeswoman Maureen Talarico says five patients are being treated at St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, Minnesota. She says emergency room physicians describe those patients as awake and alert. Talarico says another five are being treated at St. Mary's Hospital in Superior, Wisconsin, where the explosion happened. She says the extent of injuries is unknown. In Duluth, spokeswoman Jessica Stauber says St. Luke's Hospital is treating one person. She doesn't know the condition of that person. The explosion at the Husky Energy oil refinery happened Thursday morning. Superior Fire Chief Steve Panger has said there are no known fatalities. Panger earlier said the fire was out, but Superior police tweeted that the fire has reignited but that there is no need for residents to evacuate. ___ 12:10 p.m. Authorities now say five people have been taken to hospitals after an explosion rocked a large refinery in Wisconsin. Superior Fire Chief Steve Panger initially told The Associated Press that six were taken to hospitals in nearby Duluth, Minnesota, after the explosion Thursday at the Husky Energy oil refinery. The Superior Fire Department later updated that number to five. The fire chief says there are no known fatalities. Authorities don't know the extent of injuries. The fire is out. A contractor who was inside the building told WDIO television that the explosion sounded like 'a sonic boom' and that it happened when crews were working on shutting the plant down for repairs. Owned by Alberta-based Husky Energy, Wisconsin's only refinery produces gasoline, asphalt and other products. ___ 11:30 a.m. Several people have been injured in an explosion at a refinery in Wisconsin. Authorities in Superior say the explosion at the Husky Energy oil refinery happened at about 10 a.m. Thursday. Superior Fire Chief Steve Panger says six people were taken to hospitals in Duluth, Minnesota. He doesn't know the extent of their injuries. Others were walking wounded. There are no known fatalities. A contractor who was inside the building told WDIO television that the explosion sounded like 'a sonic boom' that happened when crews were working on shutting the plant down for repairs. Panger says the fire was out by 11:20 a.m. Superior police are advising people to stay away from the area and roads around the refinery have been blocked off. There have been no neighborhood evacuations.
  • Opening your hotel room door with your cell phone? Disney has started to roll out the new technology for guests to skip the front desk and go directly to their room, speeding up the start of vacations. Disney gave WFTV anchor Jamie Holmes an exclusive look at how guests will be able to use their cellphones to get into their hotel rooms. The theme park rolled out the technology at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Over the years, the My Disney Experience app has been an expanding feature of how guests navigate the parks and hotels. Previous story: Your smartphone could unlock Disney hotel rooms Guests can use it to check ride wait times and even clean up park photos. But guests can also use it to plan their hotel stay, skip the check-in desk, and go straight to their rooms. 'If you choose to, you can actually bypass the front desk area, if that's important to you, and start your vacation earlier,' Michael Trum, with Disney digital guest experience, said. Here’s how it works: Guests take their cellphones and hold it up to their hotel room door, and that’s when a little Disney magic happens. >> Read more trending news  'They're Bluetooth-enabled. Your phone, most smart phones. We've upgraded our locks to be Bluetooth enabled as well. So, they pair together, via security obviously,' Trum said. The technology can be used as a companion to the Magic Bands, which are required to get into the parks. Long gone are metal hotel room keys, and for the most part, even plastic key cards are gone. But, since most guests these days aren't far from their phones, the Bluetooth technology gives them a choice. Many people wonder whether the new technology is safe. Cellphone passcodes are notoriously hard to crack and Disney stands by the system. “We obviously designed this with security in mind. We can't go into details on Disney security policies, but our guests should absolutely feel safe using this as an entry point into their rooms,' Trum said. Disney is not the first to use the Bluetooth technology. Hilton and Marriot hotels have been using it for several years. The FBI said it has never had a case of hackers using phones to enter a hotel room in the U.S. Disney will expand the service to other hotels over the next several months.
  • New text messages obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News show a top aide to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pressuring other city officials to delay production of open records during Reed's final months in office. In unvarnished, sometimes vulgar comments, the texts reveal the mindset of senior Reed administration officials through the unguarded words of one of Reed's closest advisers and most ardent defenders, former communications director Anne Torres. We'll show you the text messages and explain how a simple request quickly turned into a dispute between Reed's office and the Atlanta BeltLine, on Channel 2 Action News at 6 p.m. The GBI opened a criminal investigation of the city's handling of open records requests last month after the AJC and Channel 2 reported on other text messages from former Reed press secretary Jenna Garland. Garland instructed another staffer 'to drag this out as long as possible' and provide information 'in the most confusing format available' in response to a Channel 2 open records request for city water billing records. The new texts from Torres show Garland's instructions to curtail production of records were not an isolated incident. Torres defended the remarks as 'inter-employee banter.' This article was written by Scott Trubey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  • Several fired and still working bus drivers gathered in front of Dekalb County School headquarters on Thursday to discuss their demands for a better work environment. Five of the eight divers who were let go one week ago, were back at the district’s offices demanding their jobs back. The press conference was held a half-hour before Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green was to meet with a hand-full of current drivers. Also in attendance, parents, grandparents and current drivers who were there in support of fired drivers like Melanie. “I stand here with the support of hundreds of drivers, parents, students and community members, and I say without hesitation, give us our jobs back.” Said Melanie.