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Atlanta city attorney thought councilman case would interest feds

Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson told council members Wednesday that she thought federal prosecutors investigating City Hall corruption would be interested in how councilman Kwanza Hall came to be hired as a senior policy advisor to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration, and that’s why she enlisted two $900-an-hour outside attorneys to perform a probe of the issue.

Hickson said attorney Tom O’Brien has represented the city in the federal investigation for years, and that experience made him the best person to perform the Hall probe. O’Brien and another partner at the Los Angeles-based Browne George Ross performed the work over six weeks. Their investigation concluded Hall’s hiring in January 2018 violated the city charter which says an elected official has to wait a year after leaving office before taking a city job.

“The facts surrounding the hiring, it was my belief it would be of interest to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Hickson told council members.

Hickson was questioned by council members for nearly an hour in a closed-door executive session Wednesday, after a series of stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about the cost and effectiveness of the Hall investigation, which failed to determine who was responsible for hiring him.

After the closed door session, Hickson made her first public comments on the investigation when she spent about a half hour answering council members’ questions in an open session — during which she revealed for the first time that O’Brien had a “conversation” with Mayor Bottoms during the investigation.

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As the AJC has previously reported, Bottoms is not named on a list of people interviewed by the law firm that it included in its investigation report. And a mayoral spokesman told reporters last week that there was no need for the attorneys to interview Bottoms and so they didn’t.

That story shifted Wednesday.

“Mayor Bottoms did not have a formal interview, but a conversation” with attorneys investigating the Hall matter, Hickson said. The city attorney went on to explain that the mayor did not receive legal warnings that accompanied employees who were formally interviewed for the investigation.

Hickson said it was O’Brien’s decision to not “formally” interview Bottoms.

Hickson also said Reed and other members of his administration who may have had information about Hall were not interviewed because “of their status with regard to the DOJ investigation.”

Reed’s Human Resources chief Yvonne Yancy, who initiated Hall’s paperwork in late December 2017 to move him from city councilman to the advisor position at more than double his council salary, refused to be interviewed for the investigation. The report implies that she may be largely responsible for placing him in that job.

But Yancy provided the AJC with a statement last week saying that she initiated the paperwork at the direction of both Mayors Reed and Bottoms. She also said the paperwork was finalized by people within’ the Bottoms administration.

Hickson on Wednesday disputed that assertion.

“Because it was a change of compensation, it was within the authority of the HR director to authorize it,” Hickson told council members. “There was no mayoral approval.”

Yancy pushed back against that claim.

“Any assertions that Ms. Yancy is responsible for the decision to hire Kwanza Hall are false and a purposeful attempt to conceal the true facts around this matter,” said a statement issued to the AJC by a public relations firm representing Yancy.

There was also confusion over how much salary Hall received during his six weeks on Bottoms’ payroll.

Hickson told council members that he received a check on Jan. 5, 2018 for a two-week period in December when he was still on city council. But as the AJC has previously reported, city payroll records show the amount of Hall’s check was $5,272 — a rate double that of his council pay, and generally in line with an annual salary of $137,000.

City payroll records show Hall also received checks on Jan 19 for $4,386 and on Feb. 2 for $5,272. The department listed as his employer for all three of those checks is “EXE - Chief of Staff,” meaning the mayor’s office. Hall’s bimonthly paychecks as a councilman were $2,319.

Council President Felicia Moore said she’s not satisfied with the results of the investigation or the answers she received on Wednesday.

“I can’t say I’m satisfied, but we’re probably as far as we’re going to get,” Moore said. “It is what it is.”

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