With the city council campaign season heating up, we thought it would be worthwhile to take a look-see at some of the campaign finance reports of the incumbents to see how they've been spending their dough. Freshman council member Tennell Atkins emerged as our first subject after we noticed an unusual number of amendments to his reports, and a thorough examination of his documents did not disappoint.
Not only has Atkins been unable to accurately report the balance of his campaign account, but several times the account had a negative balance; repayments of loans to himself and his wife were not properly reflected on his reports; an incorrect payment of $1,299 was identified; and nearly $9,000 has been paid in rent for office space in another district for a business Atkins denies even exists.
On January 30, I went to 351 W. Jefferson Blvd., an address where Atkins has spent $8,956.92 in campaign funds, beginning with a payment of $2,542.71 on July 26, 2007. This date is important because it shows that Atkins began renting the office after becoming a council member.
After entering the office building located in District 1 (Atkins represents District 8), I see "Tennell Atkins & Associates" listed in the lobby as suite 740. After heading up to the seventh floor, I find Suite 740, which has "Tennell Atkins & Associates" on a plate next to the door. I knock a few times, and there is no answer. The glass on the door is smoky, and I can't see inside.
When I get down to the lobby, I ask the security guard if she knows what kind of business Tennell Atkins & Associates provides. She says "no" but notes that Atkins comes to the building "almost every day."
Armed with this information and other data from his campaign finance reports, I contact Atkins's assistant, Mary Hasan. I have some questions for Atkins regarding his reports, I tell her, and she says he'll get back to me. I then ask her what Atkins does for a living.
"Don't you know he's rich?" Hasan says, alluding to the $3 million settlement he received from the city in 2003.
What is Tennell Atkins & Associates?
"I don't really know," she says. "I think it might be accounting."
Hasan calls back on Feburary 3 to inform me that Atkins prefers to answer any questions I have via e-mail on his way to Austin. I send seven questions but receive no answers. The following day, I e-mail him asking when I can expect answers and receive a call from his secretary, Lorri Ellis, who says Atkins is busy in council Wednesday and has a job fair Thursday, so he'll fax me his answers Friday.
I first asked Atkins what he does for a living outside of his work as a council member. "I am retired," Atkins wrote back in the fax. "As I promised during my campaign, I would devote my time to serving my district."
My second question asked what kind of services Tennell Atkins & Associates provides. "None," he claims. "It hasn't been operational since I took office."
If it hasn't been operational since he became a council member, then why has he been paying rent for the business with campaign funds (which is an ethics violation, by the way) starting after the election?
Atkins also has been careless about keeping an accurate balance for his campaign finance account. According to reported contributions and expenditures, the balance of his account should have been negative three separate times: on April 12, 2007, -5,483.90; May 4, 2007, -11,163.00; and June 8, 2007, -5,772.10. Additionally, his current reported balance of $4,368 should be $8,639.53.
Loans repaid to himself and his wife Marshella totaling $5,135 were also not properly deducted from the outstanding loan balance on his January 2008 statement. The current loan balance of his account should be $64,231.23 as opposed to the $69,366 recently reported by Atkins in his January 2009 statement.
Among numerous questionable expenditures, two payments of $1,299 were made to Home Depot on the exact same date (August 12, 2007).
"This is a clerical error," Atkins says in his fax. "One payment to Home Depot is for office supplies and materials for signs. The other is an accidental duplicate I was not aware of until you brought it to my attention. It appears that both the payee and the amount is not accurate. I am researching what the correct expense is, and when I determine that, it will be corrected. I appreciate you pointing it out."
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Atkins logged a $4,000 cash payment simply labeled "refreshments" on August 4, 2007. "This was a celebration to thank everyone who worked on my campaign," Atkins explains.
Atkins also had a $118.07 expense to Sewell Village Cadillac for repairs, which made us wonder if Carolyn Davis wasn't the only one using campaign money to fix her car. "I own several vehicles, and that vehicle is used solely for campaign purposes," Atkins maintains.
As noted earlier, Atkins has several amendments on file, including five made on December 12, 2008. Each amendment was for a loan contributed to the campaign by Atkins. "I filed my campaign reports on time, but when I realized I had made several mistakes, I went back and corrected them."
Finally, we couldn't help but ask about the involvement of Allen McGill in Atkins's campaign. McGill, who plead guilty in the City Hall corruption case, is reportedly a close adviser to Atkins. "During the campaign, he was a volunteer," Atkins claims. "He is not currently involved in my campaign."