A member of the task force that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms created to restore public trust in City Hall has resigned after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about whether a conflict of interest prohibited him from serving. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

Atlanta task force member quits over potential conflicts of interest

A member of the task force that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms created to restore public trust in City Hall has resigned after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about whether a conflict of interest prohibited him from serving.

Earlier this year, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms established the Task Force for the Promotion of Trust to evaluate the city’s policies and procedures related to “ethics, transparency and compliance” amid an ongoing federal corruption investigation that has tarnished Atlanta’s reputation.

Now undisclosed relationships between two of Bottoms’ task force appointees and the city have shaken the group and prompted its vice chairman to call for two of his colleagues’ resignations.

When Bottoms appointed Joe Whitley, an attorney with the Baker Donelson firm, to the task force in April, she praised his time as U.S. Attorney for Georgia’s Northern District; his service as acting associate attorney general — the third highest ranking position in the U.S. Justice Department; and his current leadership of the law firm’s Government Enforcement and Investigations practice group.

But she failed to mention that one of Whitley’s clients under government investigation is the city.

Records obtained by the AJC reveal that Whitley has played a leading role in shaping the city’s response to the investigation and acted as an intermediary between the city’s law department and U.S. Attorney’s Office.

During the past three years, the city has paid Whitley’s firm, Baker Donelson, millions of dollars to respond to federal investigators’ subpoenas and requests made by news media under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Experts told the AJC that by putting Whitley on the task force, Bottoms effectively put him in position to evaluate the actions of his firm.

Another Bottoms appointee, former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears who chairs the task force, represents the city’s housing authority in litigation involving former CEO Renee Glover. The mayor also didn’t disclose Sears’ work for the city agency in her nominating letter.

“The candid thing would have been for her to say, ‘I want to put two people on the task force who are my lawyers’,” said Clark Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia State University. “That’s what she should have said.”

Sears told the AJC that she would let City Attorney Nina Hickson determine if she remains the task force’s chairman.

On Friday, Task Force Vice Chairman Don Penovi said he was not informed of the pairs’ legal work until the AJC inquired about it during an interview. A few hours later, Penovi sent an email to his fellow task force members calling on Whitley and Sears to resign in advance of group’s meeting Tuesday evening.

“Certainly there is an appearance that this potential conflict of interest will not promote the public trust,” wrote Penovi, an appointee of City Council President Felicia Moore, who has opposed Bottoms’ on various issues.

In an email on Monday, Whitley told the AJC that he was no longer on the task force. He didn’t elaborate.

Bottoms office declined on Monday to release Whitley’s resignation letter, or even confirm its existence. The administration denied the existence of any conflicts and defended the two appointees.

“These accusations impugn the integrity of a respected former U.S. Attorney and an esteemed former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” said Bottoms’ spokesman Michael Smith on Monday. “There is no conflict and this is an unnecessary distraction that ultimately does disservice to the people of Atlanta.”

Conduct could be questioned

During a six-week period last fall, Baker Donelson billed the city $787,920 for services related to the federal investigation.

“It seems to me that the number one priority for this task force should be to evaluate the past and current use by the mayor’s administration of outside law firms to manage its process for disclosing information,” said Cunningham.

Carol Langford, a legal ethics expert at the University of San Francisco School of Law, told the AJC that no one from the firm should be on the task force.

“It seems to me like his conduct and his team’s conduct could be questioned,” Langford said.

Whitley’s position on the task force could also potentially allow him to be involved in making recommendations that impact his and his firm’s business.

“It’s a shame somebody would have to point that out to him,” said Peter Joy, a law professor and legal ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “It would be like someone being a lawyer and a judge on the same trial.”

Experts were less adamant about Sears appointment being inappropriate partly because there’s some separation between the city and the Atlanta Housing Authority.

The agency has its own board that selects its president and CEO. All current members were appointed or re-appointed by Bottoms or her predecessor, Kasim Reed. 

Those appointments are subject to council approval. 

Last year when Bottoms asked for the resignation of all her cabinet members, former Atlanta Housing Authority President and CEO Catherine Buell was among those expected to resign, according to a list provided by the mayor’s office. Buell eventually resigned after negotiating a settlement.

“Regardless of the exact legal details of the relationship between the Housing Authority and the City of Atlanta, Mayor Bottoms’ success in removing the Authority’s past director as part of what Mayor Bottoms described as a shake up of her ‘cabinet’ certainly raises concerns about whether a private attorney working for the Authority can truly be independent of the Mayor’s influence,” Cunningham said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.