Atlanta mayor walks back ethics pledge; outside lawyers exempt from review

In the midst of the pay-to-play federal bribery investigation at Atlanta City Hall, Keisha Lance Bottoms mayoral campaign faced heavy scrutiny last year for accepting big donations from city contractors and companies actively bidding on airport contracts.

One week before her runoff election against Mary Norwood, Bottoms announced what she called “the most sweeping ethics and transparency reform package in our city’s history.”

"No one who contributed to my campaign will be eligible for any city contracts unless approved through a new independent evaluation process that determines and certifies that such a contract would be awarded on merit and merit only," said the first bullet point of the 10-point plan, unveiled at a Nov. 28 news conference.

It appears the policy isn’t as sweeping as Bottoms implied, at least when lawyers are involved.

On March 13, the day the GBI disclosed a criminal investigation into Atlanta's compliance with the Open Records Act, the city hired Robert Highsmith, a partner at Holland & Knight and a longtime political fixer, to handle the case.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign finance records shows Highsmith, his wife, and other Holland & Knight attorneys contributed at least $8,000 to Bottoms’ campaign in November 2017 — the very month Bottoms announced the new policy.

The work agreement with Holland & Knight, which Highsmith told the AJC Monday officially concluded March 22, was not subject to any new independent evaluation process.

Highsmith will be paid $770 an hour for his work on the open records issue, including a 10-percent courtesy discount. He and his wife, Kristi, personally donated $5,400 to Bottoms' campaign.

In email responses to questions submitted by the AJC, Bottoms said the policy was never meant for outside legal counsel hired by the city, and that Holland & Knight is well-qualified to handle the open records case. Bottoms also said a “thorough analysis is being conducted around (new) ethics legislation.”

The city has $11.8 million budgeted this year for outside legal counsel and other contracted services for the law department.

“The law department maintains the authority to engage outside counsel when necessary. My campaign references were to the awarding of competitive bids in the standard procurement process,” Bottoms said. “I am committed to significant ethics reform for the City of Atlanta, and am actively working through internal processes to deliver a full legislative package that will reflect the spirit of the 10-point plan I proposed in my campaign.”

In comments to the AJC, Highsmith said his firm had represented the city in legal matters for 18 years, including the past year on open records compliance.

“We’ve been lawyers for the city a long time,” Highsmith said. “This was not a new contract that would invoke the pledge that the mayor made.”

Robert Highsmith, a partner Holland & Knight, was a contributor to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign and was recently retained by the city to handle an open records case.

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Pledge addressed hot issue

Bottoms’ ethics pledge was a major change in tone in the waning days of the mayoral campaign.

An AJC analysis in November found Bottoms received $187,000 in donations from businesses and people interested in a large airport contract that former Mayor Kasim Reed attempted to push through before the end of his term. Bottoms was the only candidate in the field to support Reed's position to award the lucrative deals, which don't expire until this fall, the AJC reported.

The donations to Bottoms at the time represented the overwhelming majority of contributions pledged by those same contractors to individuals in the race for mayor.

Greg Lisby, a communication law professor at Georgia State University, said Bottoms' campaign proposal was an obvious gesture meant to fix inequity in the city's contracting process — an issue that has haunted Atlanta for generations.

But if you make that promise, Lisby said, “at least follow through with it.” He added that hiring attorneys from a silk stocking law firm seems like “overkill” for open records issues.

Norwood, who lost to the runoff to Bottoms by about 800 votes, said in her first public comments since conceding the race that Bottoms' ethics policy likely played a big role in the outcome because the federal bribery investigation was a dominating topic during the runoff.

“The plan the new mayor outlined was very specific,” Norwood said. “The process that was outlined during the campaign clearly has not been followed. I would assume she would be held accountable for something that specific.”

“The process that was outlined during the campaign clearly has not been followed,” mayoral candidate Mary Norwood told the AJC. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Close ties to Reed

Holland & Knight’s retention in the open records issue was to be reviewed by the city after $25,000 in billing, according to the engagement letter between the city and law firm. Highsmith also provided legal advice to Bottoms’ campaign during the recount requested by Norwood after the runoff.

Highsmith has deep ties to Reed dating to their days as partners at Holland & Knight in Atlanta.

During Reed's two terms, Highsmith represented Reed in a tax dispute with Fulton County in 2013 for commercial property he owned in a business partnership, and also took on a minor traffic case for Reed's brother, Tracy.

He served as chairman and treasurer in three political committees that backed a pair of referenda Reed supported and to back Atlanta school board candidates who earned Reed's support.

Another Holland & Knight partner, John Brownlee, has been retained for the open records matter at $950 an hour, minus 10 percent. Brownlee, who leads a firm's national white collar crime practice out of its' Washington, D.C. office, did not make a personal contribution to Bottoms' campaign.

Experts have questioned the city’s retention of Holland & Knight because of the high fees, Highsmith’s past representation of Reed, and because the firm was paid $88,000 last year by the city for advice on compliance with Georgia’s Open Records Act — the very issue being investigated by the GBI.

"We just hope that the mayor will continue to work on her ethics policies as laid out in her campaign," said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

Our reporting

In 2017: AJC reporters documented a comprehensive accounting of who contributed to Atlanta's mayoral candidates, showing that front-runner Keisha Lance Bottoms received the most from people and companies doing business with the city.

In April: The AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported that the city had retained outside lawyers Holland & Knight to handle a GBI criminal probe into potential violations of the Open Records Act under the Reed administration.

Today: The AJC found more than $8,000 in campaign contributions from Holland & Knight to Bottoms and asked Mayor Bottoms to square them with a campaign pledge that contracts awarded to contributors be vetted through an independent evaluation process.