Clayton gets new/old financial consultant

Clayton County has hired the controversial former chairman of MARTA to help guide the county’s finance even as he is named in a lawsuit in connection with a failed real estate development deal in Tennessee.

Ed Wall, who resigned as chairman of the Atlanta transit system after he was caught in a 2007 sex sting operation, has returned as Clayton's financial consultant. On a 3-2 vote commissioners tapped the veteran investment banker because of his extensive knowledge of Clayton finances. Wall, who turns 49 on Tuesday, has worked with the county on and off over the past two decades. His most recent stint ended in January 2009 when he was ousted after only three months on the job in a dispute over whether the county should rely on him or the finance director for financial direction.

Clayton’s top official said this week he was unaware of Wall’s latest problems but defended the decision to hire him.

“Mr. Wall is well-respected throughout the state,” Turner said. “I’m confident he was a good selection for the job. I’ve heard very good things about him. He’s excellent in what he does and is a very smart man.”

On Thursday, an official in Walker County, Tenn. echoed Turner’s sentiments about Wall. Wall worked with Walker officials on a failed deal that would have put a $100 million, 150-room hotel and conference center atop Lookout Mountain.

“The biggest problem was lack of private financing in the project,” said Larry Brooks, Walker County’s economic development director. “As the recession got deeper and deeper, there just wasn’t enough private investment being brought to the table.”

The deal fell through, as did a subsequent scaled-down version of the project with a rival developer. In 2011, Wall was sued by the project’s Chattanooga developer on behalf of three Tennessee firms also involved in the project. The suit, filed in Chattanooga Circuit court, accuses Wall, his employer at the time and the rival development firm of fraud, negligence and malfeasance, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and interviews with Wall and others familiar with the case. Attempts to reach the plaintiffs’ attorneys were unsuccessful.

On Thursday, Wall said the suit against him, Birmingham-based Sterne, Agee & Leach, and the rival firm, Atlanta-based real estate developer Grove Street Partners, had no merit.

“The project didn’t get done. It was through no fraud or negligence on my part, ” Wall said. “Getting sued by a developer is like being called ugly by a hog.”

Meanwhile, Clayton officials are looking to Wall to help in their efforts to overhaul county government. The overhaul includes a forensic audit and the creation of several new jobs - including Wall’s - that would oversee the county’s financial operations. The audit and the new chief financial officer and chief operating officer jobs have been a source of friction for the five county commissioners. The overhaul is part of newcomers Turner and Shana Rooks’s campaign pledge to bring more transparency to county government.

“A forensic audit is really a good thing to draw a line in the sand showing ‘here’s what went on before and we’re starting a new day today’,” Wall said.

Wall is currently analyzing finances for the county’s negotiations with its seven cities in a longstanding dispute over service delivery and looking at how much of the local option sales tax should be distributed to the cities, Turner said.

The Tennessee lawsuit is just the latest controversy to follow Wall.

In March 2007, Wall was arrested for allegedly having sex in a bathroom at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with a man he met on the internet. He was sentenced to a year’s probation after pleading no contest to the public indecency charge.

Former commission chairman Eldrin Bell, who was defeated for reelection by Turner, called Wall’s return “a good thing for the citizens of Clayton County.” His deep knowledge of Clayton’s finance and inner workings of Wall Street’s investment community helped the county maintain a stellar financial rating, Bell said.

“He’s financially competent,”Bell said, adding that if the allegations in the lawsuit turn out to be true, “I would expect and urge chairman Turner to take the appropriate action.”

As it stands now, the case is pending and “it shouldn’t be held over him,” Bell said.