Atlanta mayor defends composition, mission of public trust task force

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Tuesday defended her decision to put a defense attorney who is guiding the city’s response to a federal corruption investigation on a task force charged with promoting public trust.

Joe Whitley of the Baker Donelson firm, resigned from the mayor's Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust on Monday after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about whether he had a conflict of interest. Whitley is a former high ranking Justice Department official who chairs the firm's Government Enforcement and Investigations practice.

The task force's mission is to evaluate the city's policies involving transparency, ethics and compliance and to make recommendations about how to improve them.

During the past few years, the city has paid Baker Donelson millions of dollars to help determine what records it must turn over to federal prosecutors and to help respond to public records requests.

Experts have told the AJC that Whitley’s position on the panel may have allowed him evaluate the work of his firm.

Bottoms said on Tuesday that the task force would not examine specific city practices.

But Peter Joy, a law professor and expert in legal ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, said “it’s hard to establish the right procedures without looking at what you’re doing and what you’ve done in the past.”

“That would include looking at relationships different entities have had with the city and what level of transparency there needs to be,” Joy said.

Bottoms also said Tuesday that the fact that her administration had created the task force gave it the authority to determine what constituted a conflict of interest and what did not.

“It’s of our opinion as the creators of this task force that it’s not a conflict,” the mayor told the AJC.

Bottoms said that the task force’s true purpose is to ensure that recent reform efforts weren’t overlapping.

“The point of the task force is to look at all that we’ve done, in terms of ethics and transparency, and to make recommendations on how we proceed going forward, making sure we don’t have duplicative efforts,” she said.

City Attorney Nina Hixon provided copies of a legal opinion that said Whitley’s had no conflict of interest to the task force members on Tuesday in advance of their second meeting.

The letter was prepared by Lucia T. Pera, a Tennessee lawyer and former president of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers.

Pera acknowledged that Whitley’s role as a attorney for the city could affect his service on the task force, but wouldn’t necessarily prohibit it.

“If an issue that directly implicates his work for the city does come before the task force, it might well become prudent for him to not participate in consideration of those issues,” Pera wrote.

Pera also addressed questions about whether Task Force Chairman Leah Sears could sit on the task force because she represents the city’s housing agency in a lawsuit involving former Atlanta Housing Authority President and CEO Renee Glover.

“Based on what I understand to be the relationship between the city and housing authority, under the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, in my opinion, the city and the Housing Authority would not be considered the same client for purposes of conflicts of interest,” Pera wrote.

Pera seems to have reached his conclusions based on the specific rules governing lawyers in Georgia.

Experts interviewed by the AJC said they had made their comments based on the appearance of impropriety and potential financial ties between their work on the task force and their work for the city.