Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was never interviewed by lawyers investigating the hiring of a former councilman to her staff — a hire that violated the city’s charter. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Atlanta’s $900-an-hour lawyers reach no conclusion in mayor staff case

Two lawyers, hired by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration to review how a former city councilman came to work as a special adviser to the mayor, were paid $900 an hour for the work.

But the high-priced attorneys failed in a basic tenet of fact finding: They didn’t talk to key people — the mayor and her chief of staff — who were in positions to authorize the improper hire of outgoing Councilman Kwanza Hall. In the end, the Browne George Ross law firm also failed to reach a definitive conclusion in their investigation.

The Los Angeles-based firm issued a report dated Jan. 1 that said it was “unable to determine who, if anyone, instructed” that Hall be hired to a $137,000-a-year position in the Bottoms’ administration, violating a city charter provision that prohibits elected officials from being employed by the city for one year after leaving office.

The report fits a pattern of the mayor’s office turning to high-price law firms to navigate scandals, exonerate the city of wrongdoing and leave a hefty tab to taxpayers.

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There are currently two jobs in question

In performing a six-week investigation, lawyers Thomas P. O’Brien and Ivy Wang also didn’t attempt to interview former Mayor Kasim Reed, despite the fact that Reed’s human resources commissioner initiated paperwork that led to Hall being placed on Bottoms’ payroll just days before leaving office.

And the investigation failed to account for all payments made to Hall while he was improperly employed by Bottoms.

An AJC story last year — which led Bottoms to hire the outside firm to investigate Hall’s hiring — identified three payments in 2018 totaling more than $15,000 to the former councilman: on Jan. 5, Jan. 19 and Feb. 2.

The law firm's report only mentions payments made to Hall on Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. Hall repaid the city $10,300 one week before the publication of the AJC's story, the same amount he appears to have netted from the payments.

Richard Hyde, chief investigator for the Balch & Bingham law firm who held similar posts for two Georgia attorneys general and the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, said it is difficult to take the report seriously.

“I have read this report twice and I can’t tell you what it says,” said Hyde, who was the lead author of an 800-page report on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal for Gov. Sonny Perdue. “You have to wonder if it was designed to get at the truth. I mean, it’s laughable.”

The mayor’s office defended the quality of the law firm’s work, and the decision to not interview Reed, Bottoms and chief of staff Marva Lewis.

“Brown George Ross LLP had no reason to believe that these individuals were involved in, or otherwise had any substantial knowledge regarding, the hiring of Mr. Hall,” a spokesman from the mayor’s office wrote in an email to the AJC.

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It is unclear how much the investigation cost taxpayers, because the attorneys have yet to submit an invoice. But an engagement letter between the city and the firm says both O’Brien and Wang were to be paid $1,000 an hour, minus a 10-percent government discount.

Even the engagement letter raises questions.

City policy regarding use of outside law firms dictates that the city enter into signed agreements with firms before new work commences. The engagement letter for the Hall investigation is dated Jan. 2, 2019, or two days after the firm’s report was submitted to the city.

Hall has continually refused interview requests from the AJC and Channel 2 Action News on issues related to this story. But he acknowledged to investigators that he performed no work for the Bottoms administration and said he didn’t notice the city payroll deposits into his bank account.

Hall “explained that, as a politician, he was used to money going into and out of bank accounts associated with him or his campaign all the time, and thus he did not take much notice of individual deposits,” the report says. “Mr. Hall believes that someone surreptitiously processed him for the Senior Policy Adviser position to damage his reputation.”

Experts in independent investigations have called into question the thoroughness – and high cost — of other probes by outside law firms that were initiated under Bottoms’ leadership at City Hall.

Bottoms ordered an outside law firm last year to investigate a complicated financial transaction between the city and a non-profit connected to Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency.

She asked for the probe after a March 2018 AJC story found that Reed had ordered the city to donate $40,000 to the nonprofit, which then returned the money to pay back the city for luxury airfare related to a 2017 trip Reed and several members of his staff took to South Africa.

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In July, the law firm McFadden Davis made an oral presentation of its findings to the Invest Atlanta board. The Bottoms administration told reporters that no written report had been generated in an investigation that cost taxpayers $100,000. One month later, the AJC reported that the firm only interviewed Reed after its findings were presented to Invest Atlanta.

The city published a three-page executive summary of the investigative findings after federal prosecutors issued two subpoenas seeking information about the transaction.

And last spring, joint investigations by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News showed members of Reed’s communications staff attempted to thwart access to public records. In response, Bottoms hired Reed’s former law firm, Holland & Knight, to investigate the matter.

Robert Highsmith, a partner at the firm and the city’s paid lobbyist, led the effort. That investigation cost $57,000 and produced a PowerPoint presentation that found no violations of the open records law. It referred to Reed’s communications staff openly discussing violations of the law as merely “inter-employee banter.”

Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University communication law professor, criticized that report as taking “the broadest possible brush to basically exonerate the entire city of Atlanta.”

O’Brien, the lead investigator in the Hall matter, is also a well-known entity with the city. He has performed legal work on the city’s behalf related to the ongoing federal corruption investigation — both as a partner in the Paul Hastings law firm, which once employed former Mayor Reed, and in his current position with Browne George Ross LLP.

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