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I-TEAM: The mayor, the money, the magnitude

Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 5:59 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Money, power and politics: Mayor Hardie Davis tells his side of the story to the I-TEAM about his use of a credit card funded by taxpayers.

For months, the I-TEAM requested the mayor’s credit card statements, receipts and other documents. We discovered he spent $40,000 in 2020 during the pandemic and just six months into this year, he’s already racked up nearly $30,000.

The purchases were charged to his city-issued credit card — a card that we found isn’t reviewed by anyone. No oversight and no accountability — that’s a violation of Georgia law.

Mayor Davis agreed to answer our questions during an interview with Liz Owens inside the City Hall studio he built this past year using taxpayer money.

Hardie Davis: “It is very important for Augusta to have a very positive image.”

Liz Owens: “How much tax dollars should go towards promoting that image?”

Hardie Davis: “It is one thing to allow everyone else to tell our story, but I believe the city should tell its own story.”

City policy violated?

Storytelling comes at a price to taxpayers when the stories originate from the mayor’s office. LC Studios is a production company out of Florida. It began producing videos for the mayor a month after he hired his new chief of staff, Petula Burks.

WATCH MAYOR’S FULL INTERVIEW WITH NEWS 12:

Liz Owens: “You spent about $17,000 on production services from LC Studios since December. That’s a significant amount of money.”

Hardie Davis: “The State of the City, LC Studios helped us with that, as well. We’ve done a host of videos in terms of promoting the city of Augusta and again that’s internal and all been done with the mayor’s budget.”

Liz Owens: “Did LC Studios go through procurement?”

Hardie Davis: “We went through normal practices what we have done where we look at a series of vendors who we have done business with, and we use them. … That’s the same thing with LC Studios. It’s consistent with previous practices in 2015, 2016 and 2017.”

Liz Owens: “Did it go through procurement, though?”

Hardie Davis: “No.”

Augusta-Richmond County’s procurement code requires contracts over $5,000 to go through the bidding process. The I-TEAM found some of LC Studios invoices to the mayor’s office were for over $6,000 for a total of $17,000.

Questions about influence held by mayor’s chief of staff

Liz Owens: “The reason I ask that question is because the owner has ties to your chief of staff. He worked as an officer on one your (Liz addresses Mayor’s chief of staff standing behind camera) nonprofits, so it could be considered a conflict of interest, and $17,000 is a significant amount of money to pay a company that is not in Augusta when we have a very thriving film and production community here. Do you feel like it is a conflict of interest?”

Hardie Davis: “Let me be clear. We did not use a vendor who has ties to my chief of staff, that’s number one, and two, I think it’s extremely important that we articulate this properly. There was no conflict of interest. We looked at a host of people who could do business with us on a video photography standpoint. There was a quality of product that I was looking for, and they were able to meet that but, again characterize this as tied to my chief of staff, that is an inappropriate characterization and quite frankly inappropriate.”

Liz Owens: “The reason I ask that question is because on the Florida secretary of state’s and one of her (mayor’s chief of staff) officers is the owner of LC Studios.”

Hardie Davis: “I want to be clear not my past charity. That played no role or bearing in using LC Studios.”

The I-TEAM tracks Petula Burks’ past

Petula Burks’ website describes her “the fixer” and a “crisis communication expert.” She is no stranger to government work. We found she worked as the civic engagement director for Miami Gardens before signing on as chief of staff for the mayor of Augusta-Richmond County.

State documents also show she started a slew of small businesses and charities while in Florida, including In the Name of Grace. Burks is listed as president under the articles of incorporation. Cameus Chicoye is listed as her assistant vice president. Chicoy is the owner of LC Studios, according to his Facebook, and the annual report for LC Studios lists Chicoy as an officer of the business.

News 12′s I-TEAM reporters aren’t the only journalists pressing for answers from leaders about hiring LC Studios. A newspaper questioned the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s use of tax dollars to pay for a series of re-enactment videos in 2016. LC Studios produced it. It was narrated by the public information officer for the police department at the time, another job held by Petula Burks.

Law bars elected officials from making charitable donations with tax dollars

The I-TEAM also found it cost taxpayers nearly $1,000 for the mayor to send a driver to bring celebrity Eva Marcille to Augusta for his Move with the Mayor event in February. The following day, it cost taxpayers thousands more.

A Facebook video recorded Eva Marcille speaking at the event: “What’s up, Augusta? How you guys doing tonight or this afternoon? I am super excited to be here. My name is Eva Marcile-Sterling, and I am down here as an ambassador for the Reed for Hope Foundation.”

Liz Owens: “There was a $5,000 donation made a day after an ambassador for Reed for Hope came here for Move with the Mayor, and I know Georgia’s Gratuity clause says you can’t make a donation. Is that appropriate?”

Hardie Davis: “It’s not a question on whether it is appropriate. It’s certainly within the law. Let me quantify. One, there was no charitable donation made to Reed for Hope. We had a speaker, Eva Marcille, who came to the city of Augusta. That was a speaker fee.”

The invoice does not indicate speaker fee or donation. The receipt does not specify, either. The charge only shows the payment went to the nonprofit Reed for Hope.

Article III, Paragraph VI of Georgia’s Constitution prohibits elected officials from using tax dollars for donations or giving extra compensation to a contractor after a service has been rendered.

The I-TEAM found a charge to yet another nonprofit. Mayor Davis and his wife are both listed as donors on Georgia Conservancy’s website. It also shows he serves as a trustee. Bank statements show taxpayers made a $2,500 to the nonprofit organization last summer.

Hardie Davis: “Those are things that Augusta gets a benefit, not only from me serving in that capacity, but the resources that they bring in the broader conversations we face as a city around New Savannah Bluff and Dam and issues around Phinizy Swamp. That organization helps lead in those efforts.”

Liz Owens: “What have they done?”

Hardie Davis: “They have provided me strong guidance in terms around New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.”

Five years late: Augusta misses mark to enact state law governing credit cards

The state gave guidance to municipalities on the use of taxpayer credit cards five years ago with the passing of a new law.

Georgia Code 36-80-24 states:

“… no such ... consolidated government shall issue government purchasing cards or government credit cards to elected officials on or after January 1, 2016, until the governing authority of such county … has authorized ... specific policies regarding the use of ... government credit cards.”

Augusta-Richmond County never adopted a policy, which means there have been no prohibited purchases, no spending limit and no accountability.

I-TEAM tracks more questionable spending, missing documentation

Liz Owens: “You have about $700 on makeup, $500 to update a resume, $300 for a plaque, and we have about $4,000 at local restaurants. Is this appropriate use of taxpayers’ dollars?”

Hardie Davis: “While we battled COVID, we had a host of volunteers who at a minimum thought it was appropriate to buy lunch for them.”

SEE MAYOR’S CREDIT CARD STATEMENTS:

The I-TEAM found the mayor spent more than $4,000 at local restaurants from January of 2020 through March of 2021. The charges range from small to big, like the more than $600 he spent in one day at Boll Weevil and Noble Jones. We compared all of the charges to the mayor’s calendar and found only about $400 of the $4,000 spent on food match up with scheduled meetings. Burks, in her capacity as the mayor’s chief of staff, sent us explanations for most of the charges after our interview with the mayor. She told us the $600 in charges at Noble Jones and Boll Weevil were for meetings with consultants, but the explanations are almost all without documentation.

Mayor’s budget increases, city services cut in pandemic

Commissioners approved the 2021 budget about eight months before they realized there was no credit card policy in place. They increased the mayor’s budget by about $31,000 for 2021 while cutting $3,100 from athletics, $2,250 from youth programs and $7,110 from the Newman Tennis Center.

This spring, an employee from the tennis center alerted the city, “I just received a phone call from Comcast. Our account is past due. With the tournament here this weekend we cannot afford to have the internet shut down again.” The email was sent two months after Augusta hosted the Dasani Mayor’s Cup Junior Championships at the Newman Tennis Center.

Liz Owens: “Augusta lost a lot of tax revenue last year. A lot of departments had their budgets cut. Yours was not cut and actually had $30,000 added to it. That’s why I feel looking at where the money is going so important. For instance, youth athletics and some other active programs were cut about $5,000, doesn’t seem like a lot, but your budget was increased and some of that money was given as a speaker to someone to talk about moving.”

Hardie Davis: “You raise the question of appropriateness, Liz. Every single charge, every single expense, was not only legal but appropriate in terms of how we serve and meet the needs of our citizens in the city of Augusta.”

Mayor Davis’ ties to oversight groups

What is clearly a violation of law is issuing credit cards to elected officials without a policy in place over the last five years.

Mayor Davis told us he was not aware of the change of the law. Davis serves as a director-at-large for the Georgia Municipality Association, which we found has provided education material on the 2016 credit card law to its members.

He also served on the ethics committee while in the state House.

Davis pointed out his budget is less than one-tenth of a percent of the entire budget for Augusta-Richmond County, and the city ended 2020 in a budget surplus.

Mayor Davis’ response to our interview

He sent a news release to local media outlets two business days after our interview calling for an ongoing audit of the city’s spending to be expanded to include the mayor’s credit card usage.

He also cited reckless reporting by some local media for what he called “unsupported allegations.”

Our exclusive interview with the mayor had not yet aired when he called for an expanded audit of his own credit card spending. You can watch the full interview with Mayor Davis here.

The mayor’s credit card charges for February were more than $8,500, and more than $12,000 in April. That’s when the I-TEAM began looking into his spending. A month later, charges dropped considerably, totaling just $165 in May.

Fallout and commission response to enact credit card policy

Commissioners voted to establish a policy for credit card use as state law requires during their meeting on Tuesday. They’ll use the state model as a guide for the city policy. That model details the penalties for misusing a card, including revoking an official’s privilege to use it. It also requires the city to designate a “card administrator” whose responsibility is to manage credit card use and detect if anyone is misusing them. The state model also calls for the administrator to complete monthly audits.

Many commissioners are on board, but some have questions about the process.

“I thought it was an interesting step. I’ve never seen someone who’s under scrutiny be able to request their own auditor. I think that’s something that the commission or the administrator’s office should be tasked with,” said Commissioner Brandon Garrett, District 8.

“If it promotes transparency and we can make sure that this government continues to run in an effective way, in a transparent way, I think that we all oughta support it and go in that direction,” said Commissioner Jordan Johnson, District 1.

Garrett thinks the audit is a good idea, but he would like the commission or administrator to select the company, and he’d like a more complex audit.

“With a forensic audit, I think you would dive a little deeper into seeing exactly where did the money go? Who did it go to? As well as hopefully asking the tough questions of where is the documentation?” Garrett said.

Garrett says doing a deeper audit will help clear up some of the questionable expenditures and help taxpayers see that leaders are trying to be transparent.

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