Memo to Tim Lee: Never stiff a million-dollar lawyer

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee observes the singing of the National Anthem during the official, Sept. 16, groundbreaking for the new Braves stadium. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Caption
Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee observes the singing of the National Anthem during the official, Sept. 16, groundbreaking for the new Braves stadium. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee has demonstrated an impressive set of skills during his campaign to woo the Atlanta Braves to Cobb, including one rarely seen before.

Was that skill keeping a multi-hundred-million-dollar, public-private deal top secret?

No.

Was it springing a complex stadium plan on his fellow elected commissioners and then persuading them to hurry up and approve it without asking too many questions?

Nope.

Tim Lee did the impossible — he made it almost possible to feel sympathy for an incredibly well connected, handsomely paid bond counsel.

In July 2013, Dan McRae, an Atlanta partner who heads the finance team at the national law firm Seyfarth Shaw, met with a Cobb Chamber exec and Lee to cook up the plan to lure the Braves to the Galleria area. Secret plots need code names, so Lee called it Project Intrepid. And to make it really secret, Lee bypassed the county's rules and picked McRae on his own, real quiet like, to negotiate the deal.

Sometime between then and November, when Lee sprung the plan on the county’s regular attorney, his fellow commissioners and then the public, McRae engaged in hush-hush negotiations with the Braves many times. The result was a complex Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, that spells out who will pay for what in constructing the new $622 million stadium. Cobb will issue up to $397 million in bonds.

Lee then ramrodded the deal through the commission, and the team is set to play ball in Cobb in 2017.

But those looking into the record to see how it all went down were surprised that there was a dearth of records about the negotiations. That’s because the Braves, the Chamber, the bond lawyer and Lee kept their communications off the county email system and didn’t create official paperwork, keeping it outside the reach of Georgia’s Open Records Act.

This summer, AJC reporter Dan Klepal, who has been a burr under Lee's saddle, discovered some 30 drafts of the MOU. The county's regular attorney, Deborah Dance, told Klepal that McRae was the county's negotiator, which was the opposite of what Lee had insisted.

Dance then talked to Lee, apparently reminding him what the truth was. The next day Lee, Project Intrepid’s generalissimo, issued a statement, “It is now my understanding that McRae was acting on the county’s behalf.”

In one of the preliminary MOUs, McRae’s firm, Seyfarth Shaw, was listed as the county’s bond and project counsel, jobs that would pay more than $4 million. But Dance removed Seyfarth’s name from later versions because Cobb already had a bond attorney.

It is unclear what arrangement Lee and McRae had when the lawyer took up for the county, performing his unpaid secret service. One would imagine the implicit agreement was that McRae would be in line for some sort of work. Otherwise, why is he donating tens of thousands of dollars worth of his billable hours to the effort? One could say he was public spirited, although if he wanted to work pro bono there are probably more worthwhile charities than bringing baseball outside the Perimeter.

“He was not promised any payment for the advice he provided,” Lee wrote to Klepal last week.

“Clearly, he thought he’d get hired,” said Ed Wall, an investment banker who has worked with governments. Wall said lawyers and consultants often work for free on the front end, figuring they’ll be rewarded in the end. “Although you don’t do it too much, or you’ll go broke.”

As the new year rolled around, McRae lobbied for some of the lucrative lawyering work that comes with the project. After all, “we had a large part of the negotiations of the MOU on behalf of the county,” he wrote in an email.

Lee and McRae even shared the spotlight in an April seminar put on by the Chamber. And McRae was sucking up. “We certainly have a great lineup of speakers, particularly you!” he wrote Lee.

But by June, McRae’s overtures were going unrequited. On June 15, a frustrated McRae wrote Lee’s assistant: “As you know from my voice mail, I was not able, again, to talk with chairman Lee.” McRae said he needed “to close the books on the Braves.”

The plan’s code name was Project Intrepid, meaning gallant and unafraid. But it seems Lee wasn’t intrepid when it came to personally telling McRae to get lost.

Lee’s aide, according to emails, asked him what they should do with the now-pesky McRae. By July, McRae was contacting county attorney Dance for answers. Dance asked Lee why McRae was contacting her. “Please see what he wants,” Lee told Dance. “We need to keep him in front of us.”

In August, Lee told the AJC that McRae had unilaterally inserted his firm’s name into the MOU as bond counsel without the chairman’s knowledge or consent. Asked why a veteran lawyer would do that, Lee shot back, “I don’t know why. You’d have to chat with him.”

Pressed on whether McRae’s supposed action concerned him, Lee said: “No. Because I have an approved MOU which doesn’t have him in it.”

After the interview, Klepal left a voicemail with McRae telling him exactly what Lee had said.

The next business day, McRae sent a mysterious email to Dance on her official Cobb account. It also went to the Chamber guy and to Lee’s private email account. There was no message in the email other than an Oct. 8, 2013, email pasted into the body. The October email was where Lee effectively hired Seyfarth Shaw for the Braves project.

It came from a Cobb Chamber account, which had, until now, kept it out of the county’s system and not subject to the Georgia Open Records Act.

“I am passing on to you the following provided by Chairman Tim Lee on behalf of Cobb County and its entities,” the October email said. “The county confirms the attorney-client relationship between it and Seyfarth Shaw as its project counsel/bond counsel for Project Intrepid.”

With one mouse click, McRae had put the smoking-gun email within reach of the media and the public. It was either a bush-league slip-up or a masterly stroke of passive-aggressive retaliation.

Klepal got hold of the email a couple of weeks ago through an Open Records request.

“Dan (McRae) knew what he was doing when he sent it out of the blue; now it would be part of the open record,” said Ed Wall.

Wall said Lee’s treatment of McRae has been the buzz of metro Atlanta’s tight-knit network of bond attorneys. “The word is, poor old Dan got screwed,” Wall said, chuckling.

“Poor old” is a misnomer. The legal newspaper Daily Report this year estimated that equity partners at Seyfarth Shaw average $925,000 a year. Remember, I said earlier that Lee made it “almost” possible to feel sorry for a silk-stocking bond lawyer.

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