Lee wants ethics board member removed

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee is trying to remove an ethics board member before his hearing next week, after she sharply questioned his defense in an October preliminary hearing.

The reason: Lee switched attorneys, and his new counsel is the ex-husband of ethics board member Angeline Fleeman Mathis.

Emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show attorney Ben Mathis, chairman of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, notified the ethics board Nov. 4 that he has taken over Lee’s defense of a complaint that alleges the chairman improperly hired attorney Dan McRae to negotiate the preliminary stadium deal with the Atlanta Braves, then used private email accounts to skirt the open records law.

One of those email accounts belongs to the Cobb Chamber.

Ben Mathis’ email says his ex-wife should “consider and decide whether she can recuse herself.”

“Depending on her decision, it may be necessary to file a motion for recusal, which will require a board decision and appointment of a new member,” Mathis wrote in the email.

Angeline Mathis is an attorney and former chairperson of the ethics board. She served on the board for two separate preliminary hearings on complaints filed against Lee earlier this year, both of which were dismissed.

But a trial-like hearing in this complaint is scheduled Nov. 20.

Ben Mathis, a partner in the prominent Freeman Mathis & Gary, takes over for a lawyer in his firm who represented Lee at the preliminary hearing.

At that hearing, the board was told that McRae wasn’t negotiating on the county’s behalf because nothing he did was “binding,” which caused Angeline Mathis to responded: “Really, that doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter because no lawyer would have had the authority to bind the county … so it doesn’t really excuse the use of an outside lawyer,” she said.

The board voted, 5-1, that there is enough evidence against Lee to proceed to next week’s hearing, at which witnesses will give sworn testimony. Angeline Mathis is one of three attorneys on the ethics board; all three voted for the case to move forward.

When asked by the AJC why he took over Lee’s case, Ben Mathis responded in an email that ethics is an area of law in which he has substantial experience, and he thinks the case is important for “his home county … where my law firm was started and is headquartered.”

“I felt it would be wrong for me not to personally lead his representation in this very important matter solely to avoid the implications to me of having to raise the conflict issue,” the email says. “I regret very much having to raise it. … But I would be shirking my duty as a lawyer not to do so under these circumstances.”

The county is paying Ben Mathis’ firm, Freeman Mathis & Gary, $145 an hour for Lee’s defense — a fee Ben Mathis said is “a very substantial discount to our normal rate.” The firm hasn’t yet billed the county for any of the work on Lee’s behalf, according to the county attorney’s office.

County attorney Deborah Dance confirmed that her office signed off on hiring Mathis’ firm. But Dance said she could not comment when asked why her office isn’t defending Lee, as it did in two prior ethics complaints filed against the chairman this year.

One reason could be public comments Dance has made.

The county attorney told the AJC in two interviews about McRae’s role in Braves negotiations that she “personally witnessed” McRae negotiating on the county’s behalf, and that Lee did not have the authority to hire him.

West Cobb software salesman Tom Cheek, who filed the complaint against Lee, told the AJC that he plans on calling Dance as a witness. He said the request to have Angeline Mathis removed was Lee “trying to change the makeup of the board by changing his lead attorney.”

The ethics board will be confronted with a few major decisions at the start of the hearing, the biggest of which is a Ben Mathis’ request to have the case thrown out.

He filed the motion Nov. 4, arguing that the case should be dismissed because the county’s ethics ordinance says elected officials “should” avoid the appearance of impropriety, and not that they “shall” or “must.”

The motion says the ordinance “cannot be a basis for discipline because it is not a mandatory standard of conduct, but only an advisory statement.”

And if the case survives that challenge, Ben Mathis wants the hearing delayed.

He told the ethics board in an email that Mike Plant, the Braves’ executive vice president of business operations, is a key witness and has a previously scheduled trip out of town on Nov. 20.

Cheek said the request to delay the hearing is especially irksome. The ethics board secretary offered both sides three dates from which to choose for the hearing. Four days later, after Nov. 20 had been selected, Mathis’ firm asked for the delay.

“I don’t know anything beyond the basics of law, but I was aware enough and considerate enough to give you my available dates (in) less than 12 hours,” Cheek wrote to the ethics board. “It would seem that an affidavit from Mr. Plant would suffice.”

Cheek’s complaint largely mirrors reporting by The Atlanta Journal Constitution related to McRae’s role in the Braves negotiations.

On Tuesday, the ethics board sent notice to both parties that the hearing will proceed next week. The board will rule on the issues raised by Ben Mathis, then proceed to the hearing if the motions to dismiss and reschedule are rejected.

Angeline Mathis did not return a phone message seeking comment this week, so it is unclear if she will voluntarily step down for the case, or if the board will be asked to decide if she should be removed.

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