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Atlanta City Hall probe into councilman’s employment raises more questions

An investigation by high-priced outside lawyers meant to resolve how a former Atlanta city councilman was improperly hired as a $137,000-a-year senior advisor to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has instead fueled more questions, and raised the specter that federal prosecutors investigating City Hall corruption may be interested in the case.

That is the emerging picture from a series of emails by Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson, who was criticized by council members last week over her retention of two $900-an-hour lawyers to investigate former City Councilman Kwanza Hall’s January 2018 hiring. Hall was not eligible to work for the Bottoms administration because of a charter provision that prohibits elected officials from city employment for one year after leaving office.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue

Kwanza Hall is accused illegally accepting a job at the mayor's office after he left the city council.

Thomas O’Brien and another partner at the Los Angeles-based Brown George Ross LLC issued a report Jan. 1 that reached no conclusion about who was responsible for Hall’s employment. And the attorneys failed to interview key players who were in position to authorize it — Mayor Bottoms; her chief of staff, Marva Lewis; and former Mayor Kasim Reed, whose human resources chief initiated Hall’s paperwork in December 2017.

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Bottoms has said she was unaware that Hall worked for her office, or that he earned $15,000 during the first six weeks of 2018.

Last week, after a tense executive session with city council members on Jan. 7, Hickson wrote an email to O’Brien seeking help in explaining her use of the firm.

“I am getting blasted about hiring your firm,” the email says. “Is there some way to finesse saying that the U.S. Attorney trusted you all to do the investigation?”

O’Brien responded to Hickson’s request a few hours later. His statement stopped short of saying federal prosecutors had input in his firm’s selection.

“We have an ongoing dialogue with the Law Department with issues that arise that may be of interest to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI,” O’Brien’s email to Hickson says. “Based on the subject matter, the City Attorney believed the results of the investigation could be of potential interest to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI and, for that reason, deemed it best to retain Browne George Ross for the investigation.”

Hickson forwarded O’Brien’s statement on to city council members within minutes of receiving it.

“This explains why the firm was selected,” Hickson wrote in the email to council members. “I would ask that you not share this outside of the Council. This is what was discussed in executive session.”

The Hickson emails were sent to the AJC from an unknown source, but council members later confirmed their authenticity.

Questions about investigation persist

Council members will hold an executive session next week in which they are expected to ask more questions of Hickson about the internal investigation. They expressed dismay that the city attorney would ask the law firm to “finesse” a statement meant for them.

The city’s law department is supposed to report to city council and the mayor’s office equally.

“The council should not get a finessed response — it should get the same information as the mayor’s office,” council president Felicia Moore said. “But at the end of the day, that report isn’t going to help the U.S. Attorney’s Office that much.”

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In two articles last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the deficiencies in the law firm’s Kwanza Hall investigation. The AJC also reported last week that the city law department appears to have violated its own policy by hiring Browne George Ross without a signed agreement.

The AJC first reported on Hall’s  improper hiring in November. That story led Bottoms to order an internal investigation.

It is unclear how much the Hall investigation cost city taxpayers, because the firm has not yet submitted its bills.

Nothing in the email exchanges between Hickson and O’Brien prove federal prosecutors are investigating Hall’s employment. But they demonstrate the seriousness of the violation.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on whether federal prosecutors advised the city on its use of the Browne George Ross firm. But sources with knowledge of operations there say federal prosecutors would never weigh in on a municipality’s use of outside council, particularly when it is under investigation.

“I’ve never known of a case in which the U.S. Attorney’s Office provided an advisory opinion as to who a municipality could or should have as outside counsel — whether they were under investigation or not,” said Jeffrey H. Brickman, a former federal prosecutor who is now in private practice.

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A spokesman from Bottoms’ office declined to answer questions about Hickson’s emails, including why she asked O’Brien to insinuate that federal prosecutors signed off on the firm’s hiring.

“What you have is an attorney-client privileged communication, therefore we will not have any further comment,” the spokesman said.

The City Hall corruption investigation is now in its third year and has ranged from prosecutions of bribery in contracting, to a review of spending by former mayor Reed and members of his inner circle.

Howard Shook, chairman of the council’s Finance/Executive Committee, said he has a laundry list of questions for Hickson.

“I want to know about the selection process” of the law firm, Shook said. “I want to know more about the relationship between entering into an engagement letter and payment for the work product. I want to know what the criteria was as to who and who not to interview” during the investigation.

As for the report itself, Shook said: “It generated as many questions as it did answers.”

The story so far:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in November that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration improperly hired former city councilman Kwanza Hall as a $137,000-a-year special advisor after taking office in January 2017. The hire violated a city charter provision prohibiting elected officials from city employment for one year after leaving office. Within six weeks, Hall transferred to a higher-paying job at Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency. After the AJC reporting, Bottoms’ law department hired two partners at a Los Angeles-based law firm to investigate the matter at rates of $900 an hour. Last week, the AJC reported that Hall had been dismissed from Invest Atlanta, and that the report generated by the law firm’s investigation failed to reach a conclusion about who ordered Hall’s employment, and failed to interview key people who would have had the authority to hire the councilman — including Mayor Bottoms; her chief of staff Marva Lewis; and former Mayor Kasim Reed.

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