Campaign cash changes hands at mystery Atlanta address
Anonymous e-mails, a payment for public records, and campaign finance filings appear to link Clayton County District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin to suspended Sheriff Victor Hill and convicted campaign consultant and former CCSO Chief of Staff Mitzi Bicker’s Pirouette Companies in an alleged scheme to take over Clayton County government.
The e-mails have targeted members of Chairman Jeff Turner’s administration, as well as Turner and his son. Political tensions have grown so heated that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into an alleged death threat against Turner, while Hill’s command staff have been assigned as “bodyguards” for Franklin, District 1 Commissioner Alieka Anderson, and District 2 Commissioner Gail Hambrick during BOC meetings.
The receipt for a recent Open Records Request from Clayton County contains a name connected to the first e-mail address in a series of partially false allegations sent to and then forwarded to dozens of officials and reporters by District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin.
Follow the e-mails
The e-mail chains follow a particular pattern:
- An anonymous sender uses an untraceable Gmail address to send Franklin an allegation of wrongdoing or criminality by an appointed official or civil service employee at Clayton County.
- The sender “demands” an Open Records Request, which does not require anything more than a routine filing on the county’s public Open Records portal.
- Franklin forwards the unvetted allegation to numerous county officials and local news agencies and publicly calls a county employee or official on the carpet.
- Further investigation by The Clayton Crescent reveals the allegations are partially or completely false or that important information was left out (for example, exonerations).
- A new person is targeted in a new mass e-mail chain and the cycle repeats.
After the latest series of e-mailed accusations, the sender posted partial screenshots of some records that the county released in response to the request. The screenshots were edited to hide the sender’s identity. Those records are also public records, which The Clayton Crescent requested.
Burgess pops for Frink/Concerned Citizen ORR
In response, the county released two documents: one showing the original Open Records Request was filed by Sherrad Frink—the name related to the first pseudonymous e-mail chain—and a receipt showing that $500.01 as a deposit for that ORR was paid for by a Nathaniel Burgess, using a Mastercard credit card:
Attempts to reach Burgess and to confirm his identity were unsuccessful.
However, the mass e-mails about that request did not come from “email@example.com” but from a “Concerned Citizen” at “firstname.lastname@example.org”—suggesting that the two accounts are linked, if not owned by the same person.
Other e-mail accounts used to forward similar requests for information include “inform clayton,” using the address email@example.com; “News Tips” using the address firstname.lastname@example.org; and “Michell Williams,” using the address email@example.com.
The Clayton Crescent has e-mailed the Sherrad Frink account, asking why Burgess paid for the ORR and whether either Sherrad Frink or Burgess owns that account or any of the other recent anonymous e-mail accounts containing information that Franklin later mass-forwarded to numerous elected and appointed officials and reporters. We also asked Franklin why Burgess would pay for Frinks’ ORR and whether she knew what Burgess’ interest might be in the matter. Neither had responded by press time.
Victor Hill and the “John David” list
The e-mail wars started during the last election cycle, when suspended Sheriff Victor Hill and Franklin were campaigning for Anderson and for District 4 candidate Janice Scott, who was running against Commissioner DeMont Davis. (Anderson’s campaign also hired Pirouette Consulting.)
On May 23, the night before the election, an e-mail from someone calling themselves “John David” alleged that “Victor, Alieka, Janice, Felicia & Mitzi have been strategizing how to take over Clayton County. As we know, Victor wants one form of law enforcement. The plan is to remove Chief Roberts and the three girls [sic] will vote in Victor’s pick and his pick will bring in his loyal S.O. staff to PD and he will have control of both agencies.”
To that end, according to “John David,” “[t]heir first order of business will be to remove” CFO Ramona Bivins, COO Detrick Stanford, Police Chief Kevin Roberts, Community Development Director Patrick Ejike, Parks and Recreation Director Troy Hodges, Chalonda Smith, and Human Resources Director Pamela Ambles.
“John David” also alleged that CCSO was keen to get rid of Bivins: “they really want CFO Bivins gone because the Sheriff’s Office has committed FRAUD with the COVID money that they received by using the money for unapproved purposes and they are on pins and needles about Finance figuring out what they did with the money with their creative accounting. A Forensic Audit MUST be done to find out what they did with the money. If the two loyal girls [sic] (Alieka & Janice) win, then it won’t happen. More money will be ciphered away until their pockets are fully lined.”
The Clayton Crescent has communicated by e-mail with “John David,” who refused to identify themselves or to return a telephone call for fear of their voice being recognized:
None of the other anonymous e-mail senders have responded to The Clayton Crescent about their identities or incomplete and thus misleading information in their allegations. However, several of “John David”‘s predictions have come to pass. Since the election:
- Bivins’ contract as COO was abruptly dropped and an investigation launched into her county-financed Ph.D. studies at Vanderbilt University (the BOC voted 3-2 to direct the county to recover $37,402 in tuition payments from Bivins)
- Roberts has come under fire over a CCPD officer’s participation in a U.S. Marshals Task force raid that left one man dead and the officer’s subsequent administrative duties at the firing range (the BOC voted to approve Sgt. Kristopher Hutchens’ assignment to the U.S. Marshals Task Force as a consent agenda item five years after the incident)
- Smith was subjected to a disciplinary hearing and suspension over nonprofit contractors’ distribution of COVID-19 emergency housing funds
- Ambles was repeatedly accused in public of improperly vetting Chairman Jeff Turner’s son, a grounds maintenance employee (Ambles replied that she had followed employment law and county procedures)
- Stanford voluntarily reimbursed the county $23,757 for his master’s degree studies, telling The Clayton Crescent, “I think in the spirit of where we are in this county, it’s about us moving forward. I didn’t pay it back out of any guilt or any ill will since I felt like I was obligated to, but at some point in time I think that it’s important that we stay focused on the real thing, and that’s for us to continue to handle the business of the county. Someone feels that the language in contracts are ambiguous, and you can address that through a policy discussion.” Stanford added that if his master’s degree from UGA in learning, leadership, and organizational development “didn’t rise to the level of a training or some professional development that would help better the county, that’s one’s opinion and I respect that, and at the end of the day, I just paid it back.”
Audits for thee, but not for me
Terminus Municipal Advisors did an internal audit at the BOC’s request, which questioned the tuition payments and recommended that the county come up with agreed-upon procedures to audit all travel and training expenditures for county employees and elected officials:
The board voted 3-2 against auditing county commissioners’ spending. (Turner and Davis were in favor of auditing all BOC members.) That means Franklin, Anderson, and Hambrick gave themselves, as well as Turner and Davis, a pass on holding themselves to the same standards of fiscal transparency that they imposed upon county executives and employees.
Since the e-mail wars began, Franklin has refused to respond to The Clayton Crescent’s numerous requests to confirm or deny a number of allegations about the e-mails, as well as her own uses of county funds. We’ll detail those requests in a separate story.
Location, location, location
CCSO also has not responded to requests for more information about Hill’s campaign payments to Franklin, Pirouette Companies, and Tomo Japanese restaurant, all of which were addressed to the apparently nonexistent 1111 Smith Street address in Atlanta.
Hill had listed numerous visits to Tomo Japanese and other restaurants (at their correct addresses) on Hill’s October 29, 2020 CCDR as campaign expenses, racking up hundreds of dollars on multiple occasions:
Franklin’s July 8, 2020 CCDR shows a March 9 $1,000 payment from Hill, whose occupation is listed as “Business” and whose address is listed as 9157 Tara Blvd.—the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.
Hill’s May 4, 2020 CCDR shows a $1,000 payment to Franklin on March 10, the same day that Hill reported a $20,000 payment to Pirouette Companies. Both were listed as “campaign” expenses. The address for both Franklin and Pirouette Companies (officially owned by Bickers’ wife, Keyla Jackson), was listed as 1111 Smith Street:
Hill also listed several payments to Tomo Japanese at the 1111 Smith Street address on his May 4, 2020 CCDR:
- March 18, 2020: $234.93
- March 23: $527.58
- April 27: $179.19
Tomo Japanese is in the Ritz-Carlton Residences at 3630 Peachtree Road in Buckhead, nowhere near the Smith Street address off University Avenue.
The Bickers connection
A check for 1111 Smith Street, both online and in person, revealed no such address between 1109 and 1113 Smith Street. A church stands at 1117 Smith Street:
Pirouette Companies is owned (on paper) by Bickers’ wife, and was one of several companies through which Bickers was convicted September 8 of funneling bribe payments related to the Atlanta City Hall contract bribery scandal. It’s also a political consulting company that many Clayton County officials have hired to run their campaigns. Bickers is on house arrest with an ankle monitor, awaiting an order to turn herself in to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Her case is on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.
Franklin wrote a letter asking a federal judge to show leniency to Bickers at her sentencing on corruption charges, as did CCSO command staff Maj. Brandon Criss, who did not mention his affiliation with Hill’s office in his letter to the judge. Bickers got 14 years, considerably less than the minimum recommended by federal sentencing guidelines. U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones said his decision to impose the lesser sentence was in part because of such letters.
Hill remains under suspension pending the outcome of his October 12 criminal trial on seven charges of civil rights violations under color of law. Hill, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of strapping Clayton County Jail pretrial detainees into restraint chairs as a form of punishment, which is a forbidden use of those devices.
Both Hill and Franklin have paid Bickers for political consulting services, as have Anderson and Scott.
A month ago, Clayton Crescent filed an Open Records Request through the county’s online portal on August 24, asking Hill’s legal advisor, Alan Parker, to clarify whether the 1111 Smith Street address was a typographical error or not. We also asked whether Hill had “some explanation for why his campaign incurred regular bills [from restaurants, totaling more than $4,000] for these locations 40 minutes to over an hour from the Justice Center?”
The county forwarded a request for further clarification to CCSO on September 12. The Clayton Crescent did not received a response from CCSO within three business days, as required by the Georgia Open Records Act, and forwarded the matter to our attorney last week. We’ll update with any new developments.
- May 24, 2022: “Scott, Davis sign flap escalates”
- June 8, 2022: “BOC fires Bivins, no explanation”
- June 27, 2022: “Old grievances, new allegations at explosive BOC meeting“
- July 26, 2022: “Splatter e-mails reflect Clayton County power struggle”
- August 4, 2022: “Cop reassigned after outcry”
- September 13, 2022: “Next on the list”
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