A probe by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission that began in 2018 has expanded to include an investigation of Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. and Tonia Gibbons, former community relations and engagement director for the mayor’s office.
Glenn Richie, the general manager for Lamar Advertising and James McKinnon of Cardinale Management, owner of Regency Mall, have previously been issued subpoenas in the matter.
Documents show the mayor used $24,000 in public funds to support the referendum campaign to have the new James Brown Arena moved to the Regency Mall site.
At issue are several billboards that The Concerned Citizens of Richmond County group purchased in 2018. Those billboards urged voters to vote “yes” on a non-binding ballot initiative on whether to build the new James Brown Arena at the site of the former Regency Mall. Voters overwhelmingly did not support the measure.
The state ethics’ commission turned its attention to the matter because The Concerned Citizens of Richmond County group has never registered as a political action committee with the Richmond County Board of Elections, and it did not disclose how much money it raised or spent, which is required by law, according to Elections Board Assistant Director Travis Doss.
Local Republican strategist David Barbee filed a complaint with the commission shortly after the May 22, 2018 referendum. That filing kick-started the probe into who paid for the billboards.
Georgia elections law required that any amount of money over $500 spent in an election be reported. According to elections law, any initiative placed on a ballot is considered an overall part of the combined election. State ethics rules also require disclosure of contributions intended to influence “voters to approve or reject ‘. . .a proposed question which is to appear on the ballot in any county or municipal election,” according to the City Clerk Handbook on the Ethics Commission website.
The purchase cost of the billboards was around $2,000, which is a large enough amount to be considered reportable income.
At the time, Davis, while publicly supporting moving the arena to Regency Mall, attempted to distance himself from the unregistered PAC and claimed he did not know who paid for the advertisements, according to press reports published in “The Augusta Chronicle.”
Sylvia Cooper, who was a reporter and columnist for “The Augusta Chronicle” at the time, said she had asked Davis then who was responsible for the marketing campaign promoting the Regency Mall site, and he replied, “I can’t say. I have my own campaign ….”
Brandon Garrett, who had worked for Lamar Advertising prior to his election to the Augusta Commission, says that to his knowledge, Cardinale, owner of the Regency Mall property, paid for the billboards, and the mayor’s only involvement was approving the final design of the ads.
Emails between the company and Davis show that he did give the final approval to the proposed layouts.
The Sizemore Group, an Atlanta architecture firm, was hired to draw mock-ups of the building designs and provide consulting services.
In total, checking account records and invoices show the mayor’s office paid $25,622.05 in taxpayer funds to The Sizemore Group for services that appear to be related to the campaign to place the new arena at the Regency Mall site. Some of those services are logged as vision and analysis, program development and logistics, according to the invoices.
Invoices from The Sizemore Group, and corresponding checks from the mayor’s office check ledger, show that Davis used city money to pay for the designs and consultation.
Augusta Blueprint was contracted to produce the final renderings, and payments may have been made from the mayor’s My Brother’s Keeper account. Payments from that account during the same time period show they were made to Augusta Blueprint.
Emails between Lamar Advertising, the mayor and Cardinale all show that Augusta Blueprint was responsible for producing the final formatted files to be used for the billboards.
In 2017, the mayor’s office paid The Sizemore Group $24,500 to co-host a by-invitation-only “SOGO Summit.” SOGO stands for South of Gordon Highway. The summit organizers took local and regional business leaders on a tour of the Deans Bridge Road and Gordon Highway areas and ended with a lavish dinner at The Partridge Inn, according to a story by Sylvia Cooper.
While the mayor and The Sizemore Group were the official hosts, McKinnon, of Cardinale Management, which operates out of New York, was on hand for the event. McKinnon’s company stood to gain millions of dollars should voters approve the ballot initiative moving the James Brown Arena to Regency Mall since they own the property.
While the summit was billed as an event to inspire development ideas in south Richmond County, the majority of the emphasis centered around the Regency Mall property and the possibility of turning the 77-acre tract into a new James Brown Arena complex.
Numerous phone calls and emails to the Davis’s office were never returned.