Atlanta’s former city attorney billed $90,000 in secret consulting deal

As former Mayor Kasim Reed’s city attorney, Cathy Hampton hired dozens of outside law firms that were paid millions in public funds.

In 2017, Hampton used her consulting company to bill one of those firms, Paul Hastings LLP, $90,000 — while she was a city employee, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found. The firm then invoiced the city for Hampton's fees without naming her or her company, describing them only as "outside professional services."

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The investigation started in 2015.

Federal prosecutors in the City Hall corruption investigation earlier this year requested documents from the city and Paul Hastings, and are now reviewing those payments.

The 1,344 pages turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office do not detail what work, if any, Hampton did for the firm in her consulting role, according to records the AJC reviewed.

“I can see there being a significant criminal problem if she’s not really a consultant to Paul Hastings,” said Bret Williams, a former federal prosecutor who is now in private practice.

At a minimum, the payments violated city ethics rules and those involved should have known better, said City Council President Felicia Moore.

“All of them are attorneys, every single one of them,” Moore said.

William K. Whitner is a partner with law firm Paul Hastings LLP, and acted as the firm’s point person on outside legal work for the city of Atlanta. J. SCOTT TRUBEY / STRUBEY@AJC.COM.

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City code limits when employees can work for outside vendors and when the earnings must be disclosed to prevent even the appearance of a conflict between their official duties and private interests.

Caren Morrison, a professor of law at Georgia State University and former assistant U.S. Attorney, said the vagueness in Paul Hastings’ bills is unusual. She said there should be a record of Paul Hastings’ attorneys speaking with Hampton, or evidence of phone calls and emails.

“If none of that exists, then clearly the services were not legal consulting services,” Morrison said. “Effectively, she’s being paid by the city, but Paul Hastings is acting as a conduit.”

Hampton, a Harvard-educated lawyer who earned $274,000 a year at the city, declined to comment when asked if anyone else at the city knew of or approved her arrangement with the firm. Paul Hastings also declined comment.

After Atlanta paid the Paul Hastings law firm $90,000 for consulting fees billed to the firm by former city attorney Cathy Hampton, the city wrote the firm that the payments shouldn’t have been approved and asked for the money back.

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The firm reimbursed the city after receiving a demand letter from current City Attorney Nina Hickson last September.

“After our discussion and an additional review of the invoices, we have determined they should not have been approved by our office,” Hickson wrote to William K. Whitner, an Atlanta-based partner at Paul Hastings.

Federal prosecutors summoned Whitner for an interview and requested records associated with Hampton’s company and the work she performed for Paul Hastings when they learned about the payments.

Close ties between city, firm

Whitner, Paul Hastings’ point man for City Hall relations, has deep ties to Reed and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

As a young lawyer, Reed worked with Whitner in Paul Hastings’ Atlanta office. Once elected, Reed appointed Whitner to serve on the search committee that led to Hampton becoming city attorney in 2010.

Hampton, in turn, hired Paul Hastings for legal work and approved millions of dollars of the firm's bills that Whitner submitted. The AJC has previously reported that the firm billed $2.2 million in vague, flat-fee invoices that contain no description of the work performed.

Reed also appointed Whitner to the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority. As chair of the authority in 2015, Whitner supported hiring then-Councilwoman Bottoms, one of Reed's allies, as the authority's executive director. The position provided her a $135,000 annual salary on top the yearly $60,000 pay she earned as a council member.

Reed also appointed Hampton to the authority in September 2017, and she now serves alongside Whitner.

Neither Reed nor Whitner responded to interview requests. Mayor Bottoms, who was sworn into office in January, 2018, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Payments wired to a bank account

Hampton, one of Reed's closest advisers during his two terms in office, made a tearful farewell to City Council on May 15, 2017, and stepped down as city attorney four days later.

The following Monday, she began billing Paul Hastings for “transition services” through her consulting company. But unbeknownst to most at City Hall, Hampton was still on the city payroll as an employee in an “extra help” position. She continued in that role, collecting vacation and sick pay, for another five months.

Former City Attorney Cathy Hampton submitted this undated bill to the Paul Hastings LLP law firm for consulting. No company with the name HCG Consulting Group is registered in Georgia. The company’s address appears to be that of a UPS store. It indicates that Hampton’s consulting work began on May 22, 2017, the Monday after Hampton’s resignation from the city attorney position became effective. Near the bottom of the invoice is a request for Paul Hastings to wire the money to a Wells Fargo account.

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Hampton sent Paul Hastings two $45,000 bills covering May to August 2017 from a company called HCG Consulting Group LLC. The bills were delivered to Whitner’s attention at Paul Hastings’ Atlanta office with instructions to wire the money to a Wells Fargo bank account.

A review of corporate filings at the Georgia Secretary of State website shows that no company operating as HCG Consulting Group exists in Georgia. However, the tax identification number on the invoices submitted to Paul Hastings matches Hampton’s company: Hampton Consulting Group LLC.

Paul Hastings billed the city for Hampton’s expenses in September and November 2017 and addressed the invoices to then-City Attorney Jeremy Berry, Hampton’s successor.

Paul Hastings November 2017 invoice to the city of Atlanta for legal work related to the federal corruption investigation includes a line item for former Atlanta City Attorney Cathy Hampton’s consulting expense, described as “outside professional services.”

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In a statement, Berry told the AJC that he was not aware of Hampton’s financial relationship with Paul Hastings.

“Had I been aware of any such arrangement, I would not have approved any work or payments that could have been deemed improper,” Berry said.

No one informed City Council that Hampton remained on the city payroll after her resignation, or that she was a consultant for Paul Hastings, said Yolanda Adrean, a former councilmember who chaired the finance/executive committee in 2017.

City code required Hampton to report her consulting work to the city on an ethics disclosure form. In March 2018, Hampton listed earnings from Hampton Consulting Group without mentioning its work for Paul Hastings.

Under penalty of perjury, the same disclosure asked Hampton if her firm “engaged in business with the City of Atlanta since January 1, 2017?”

Hampton responded: “No.”

Our reporting

The AJC previously reported federal prosecutors were examining financial ties between former city attorney Cathy Hampton and Paul Hastings LLP. Reporting in 2018 revealed that Atlanta paid Paul Hastings $2.2 million for flat-rate legal bills, and that two of the firm’s partners had financial interests in airport contracts while doing airport work. The FAA launched an investigation into the city’s use of federally regulated airport funds to pay outside legal counsel, after the AJC reported some of Paul Hastings’ bills were paid with airport revenues.

Cathy Hampton

A native Mississippian, Cathy Hampton graduated from Atlanta’s Spelman College and Harvard Law School. She led the city of Atlanta’s 85-member law department from 2010 to 2017 under former Mayor Kasim Reed. She currently serves on the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority.