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Donations link Friends of Bill to Franklin campaign

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There's a name other than Bill Campbell's that comes up time and again in stories about the ongoing federal investigation into alleged City Hall corruption. It's Samuel "Ricky" Rowe.

Rowe's name also shows up on mayoral candidate Shirley Clarke Franklin's campaign-contribution disclosures. Personally and through his companies, the man whom Campbell has described as his closest friend has donated at least $7,000 to Franklin's campaign.

He isn't the only person tied to Campbell who has donated money to Franklin. Michael Coleman, Campbell's attorney; Steve Labovitz, his former chief of staff; and City Attorney Susan Pease Langford also have contributed to Franklin's $1.9 million war chest.

Such generosity from Friends of Bill raises questions about Franklin, now the apparent frontrunner in the mayor's race. Such as: How can Franklin move Atlanta government toward integrity when money from a tainted cast of characters fuels her campaign? How can she talk about giving city business to folks regardless of their connections when the insiders' clique is funding her campaign? And will Franklin's close links to the political lineage that began with Maynard Jackson and continued through Andrew Young and Campbell immerse her in a web of special interests that is the very antithesis of reform?

Franklin and her campaign have made a point of saying she's her own woman and not just a handpicked successor to Campbell, but one look at her financial disclosures places some doubt on those assurances -- as do her close ties to Jackson and Young.

"There is a perception that there is a group descended from Maynard Jackson," says Steven Muhammad, the regional director for the Million Family March.

That perception isn't too far from reality: Since Jackson became the Deep South's first African-American mayor 28 years ago, an elite group of political operatives and business people has grown up around City Hall. If you're "in," you can expect city contracts and city money. If you're not, Atlanta's nickname, "Black Mecca," seems like a joke, Muhammad says.

There is no question that Franklin is tied to the former mayor and the inside crowd. Jackson's the godfather of her son. David Franklin, the candidate's close friend and ex-husband, was a key strategist in Jackson's campaigns.

There also is no question that what passes for a political machine in Atlanta -- a group that originally formed around Jackson in 1973, but partially disintegrated under Campbell -- has coalesced during this campaign around Franklin.

Her connection to the former mayors is a strength in her election bid. Young sang a Bob Marley song with her in May at the opening of her campaign headquarters. On Thursday, Franklin actually came to an interview with CL fresh from a sit-down with Jackson in the Equitable building. Both former mayors are expected to endorse her in the fall and lend their formidable get-out-the-vote influence to her campaign.

That doesn't mean black Atlantans, who make up 57 percent of the city's electorate, will blindly vote for Franklin because of her connection to Jackson. Muhammad stresses that they will be examining Franklin to figure out if they can expect her to give everyone an opportunity.

It's one thing to get support from the two former mayors and the operatives who were closest to Jackson and Young. But donations from individuals, like Rowe, who are particularly close to Campbell should give even more pause to voters who are suspicious of the cozy crowd at City Hall.

Rowe's company, R&D Testing & Drilling, has done millions of dollars in business with the city since Campbell took office, including work on the once-troubled Hemphill Water Treatment Plant. And even though internal Public Works Department memos criticized R&D's job performance on a series of Atlanta projects, the company continued to land contracts and have them renewed. The public works director who brought attention to the problems, Jarvis Middleton, was fired.

Rowe's big pockets during Campbell's 1997 re-election campaign and his connection to the mayor didn't hurt his business with the city. He donated at least $6,000 to Campbell, both individually and through his companies. Rowe's sister, Donna Heard, who owns DxD Construction Co. and is an officer with R&D, also gave $2,000 to Campbell.

During the last year, though, records for DxD have been subpoenaed by federal authorities looking into corruption in the city's minority contracting program, and FBI agents investigating City Hall have spoken with Rowe, says a source familiar with the investigation.

At first, federal scrutiny did nothing to deter Rowe's spirit of giving to Franklin's campaign. His companies have contributed $6,000, while he chipped in $1,000. (Rowe, who was out of town last week, couldn't be reached for comment.)

Franklin says she knows Rowe and his wife from her days as the city's chief administrative officer under Young. When people learned she would be running, dozens of the contacts she made while at City Hall -- Rowe included -- donated.

Of course, donating to a political campaign isn't illegal, and Rowe hasn't been indicted or convicted of any wrongdoing. He is, however, touched by the investigation. When Franklin accepts money from him, she ties her campaign to the troubled Campbell administration.

Franklin counters claims by saying she'll just continue the ethically questionable behavior of the current city government by pointing to what her campaign has already done. To her credit, it's easy to find Rowe's name amid her campaign contributors because she places the names of all of her donors on her website on a monthly basis. The other candidates haven't done that.

"There's no influence to be bought here," she says.

Additionally, Franklin released her tax information for the last three years in an effort to prove she's got nothing to hide from the public. Pitts and Gloria Bromell-Tinubu have both declined to release their tax information.

"I've raised the bar on ethics and reporting as a candidate," Franklin says.

The bottom line, says campaign manager Kasim Reed, is that if Franklin is elected mayor and someone receives a city contract, you will be able to quickly check the mayor's list of donors.

To further distance herself from the atmosphere of corruption, Franklin blasted Campbell in a February AJC column by saying: "I don't want Bill Campbell's support, and I don't have it." She accused Campbell of mismanaging the city. The distance between the pair is real, say sources close to both. The Young administration and Campbell, then a junior councilman, often clashed -- most famously over the construction of the Freedom Parkway -- and David Franklin is no friend of the current mayor either.

Interestingly, the contributions from the Campbell camp largely dried up after Franklin made her comments in the AJC. While some of the people aligned with the mayor recognized the political necessity of creating distance between the candidate and the embattled mayor, they didn't like the way Franklin did it. Anger over her words might be the reason prominent Campbell backers haven't been donating to Franklin.

Still, the names are on the list, and Franklin will have to do a lot of convincing for Campbell's detractors to believe that Franklin isn't just another name in a recent history of ethically challenged Atlanta politicians. "

kevin.griffis@creativeloafing.com

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