A private investigative firm’s request for more than 10,000 emails related to the Braves stadium deal has some citizens and Cobb commissioners wondering if the firm’s mystery client is targeting them for speaking out against the project — and Chairman Tim Lee’s controversial handling of it during the past year.
The Oct. 7 public records request filed with the county seeks emails of two of the five commissioners, the county’s spokesman and two residents: East Cobb attorney Susan McCoy, who has filed a federal securities complaint over the $400 million public financing plan; and a West Cobb man, Tom Cheek, who has a pending ethics complaint against Lee.
It also seeks emails between those county officials and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which the newspaper plans to publish online when they become available. The two commissioners named in the request have clashed with Lee over the stadium and other policy issues.
The request came just a weeks after Lee’s longtime political consultant sent the chairman a list of suggestions for improving his image and that of the Braves project. One of those suggestions included the county spokesman forwarding all Braves-related questions to the consultant.
The latest developments are raising fresh concerns about government transparency surrounding Cobb’s commitment to build a new home for the Braves. Many Cobb residents have embraced the investment that will move the team 12 miles from downtown Atlanta. Others have criticized what they consider a secretive, rushed process led by Lee that has refused at some points to accommodate opposition.
Scott Woodall, CEO of Woodall & Broome investigative firm in Acworth, would not divulge who hired him. He also would not say if the firm has been asked to do any other type of investigative work.
“What I have been asked to do is to obtain those records,” he said. “If there’s any other scope of my investigation, I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”
The private investigative firm and its client are not seeking emails from Lee and his allies on the commission, Helen Goreham and JoAnn Birrell. Both Goreham and Birrell said they don’t know who’s behind the private investigator’s inquiry. A Braves spokeswoman said team officials know nothing about it.
Lee, through an email to the AJC, said he doesn’t know who hired the private investigator and that it is a “sign of how dysfunctional the actions of some folks are. And it is discouraging to see it occur.”
Commissioners Bob Ott and Lisa Cupid are the two elected officials named in the records request, which is legal under the Georgia Open Records Act. Ott said he has complied and turned over his emails. But he called the secrecy “disconcerting,” and said the episode has created division on the commission.
“When you target two of five commissioners, how could it not?” Ott asked. “Clearly it appears we’re being targeted.”
Targeting stadium opponents for investigation is “far outside the norm,” said William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, which has called for more transparency in the Braves deal.
“There’s a message being sent that those who are speaking out shouldn’t,” he said. “Those who are taking steps to try to dig deeper need to stop. It is very much in the area seeming like an intimidation factor.”
Since shortly after the Braves stadium was announced last November, critics have complained about the lack of transparency. The deal was negotiated with an off-the-books attorney, and without the knowledge of the county attorney or Lee’s fellow commissioners.
County offiicals have tightly held public documents related to the deal, and worked through the Cobb Chamber to keep initial negotiations secret. Key agreements finalizing the details about stadium construction and operations were released in May, after 6 p.m. on the Friday of a holiday weekend, with the commission approving them on the next business day. At that meeting, dissenting voices were shut out from the public comment portion.
The county and the team continually said the public investment in the stadium would be limited to $300 million. But commissioners approved issuing up to $397 million in debt for stadium construction.
In October, Woodall’s firm filed the request two days after an AJC story detailed Lee’s secret hiring of attorney Dan McRae to negotiate with the Braves and arrange the public financing for stadium construction — about $4 million worth of legal work.
Lee has repeatedly denied hiring McRae’s firm, Seyfarth Shaw, even after the newspaper obtained an email sent by a Cobb Chamber executive to McRae confirming that Lee had hired him. Other law firms were hired for those jobs after the county attorney became aware of the negotiations.
Commissioner Cupid said she doesn’t mind having her email examined, but it would be “helpful to know the purpose” of private citizens being caught up in the request. She’s concerned that transparency issues surrounding the Braves deal has damaged the commission’s credibility.
“We do so much to serve and … it’s very frustrating for our efforts to be undermined continually by this matter,” she said. “We didn’t bring this on ourselves. We didn’t know about this. And we pay the price every day because constituents don’t want to trust us.
“We risk the health of this entire organization because of the air of distrust.”
Lee continues to face uncomfortable questions about his handling of the stadium deal and how it came about, almost a year after the Braves move was made public.
Now he’s reached out for help with those questions.
Just days after the AJC published an Aug. 17 story that first revealed McRae’s secret stadium negotiations, the chairman’s political consultant suggested treating the Braves stadium as a political campaign.
Jeremy Brand, partner at Parlay Political, sent an Aug. 23 email to Lee with a subject line “initial steps”:
- Insist that all media requests be made in writing and forwarded to the consulting firm. “This way, we can vet all media questions, discuss (the) best response, and have you respond through email. We set it up as an arm of (your) campaign.”
- Create five to 10 “key talking points. Just like in your campaigns, you stay on those talking points and say them over and over again. Broken record. Focused on positive highlights.”
- Create a list of anticipated attacks.
- Organize people to sign positive letters to the editor.
- Raise money for “pro-Tim, pro-Braves Facebook ads.”
“As I mentioned, I have a more detailed pro-Tim/pro-Braves concept coming soon,” the email says.
Days later, Brand began helping Lee field media questions, according to emails reviewed by the newspaper.
One question asked about the cost and construction schedule for a planned pedestrian bridge over Interstate 285, that would connect parking at the Cobb Galleria Centre with the ballpark site, according to a Sept. 3 email.
The AJC reported in May that the bridge is unlikely to be completed by Opening Day 2017, if at all, because the county has no way to fund it.
Brand’s suggested answer on the bridge question: “Just ignore this one. …If pushed, we can simply say this is part of an on-going planning process.”
Brand again lent a hand with questions in September related to a University of Florida poll of Cobb residents, a majority of whom thought there should have been a public referendum on the Braves stadium investment. Brand told Lee to “stick with something simple” and the written response managed to slip in Lee’s campaign slogan of “serious leadership.”
“The reality is that the Braves coming to Cobb is an economic home run for our county and our taxpayers,” Brand suggested. “It will result in thousands of new jobs … millions of dollars of positive economic impact … all thanks to serious leadership that worked with the Braves to get them here.”
Brand has been Lee’s political consultant since 2010.
Lee said he consults with many people “in all walks of life on a variety of issues” and that it “helps me do my job well.” He called Brand a trusted source.
“I believe the main point of that email was to work to get out some positive messages instead of negative ones,” Lee wrote in an email to the AJC. “Just like every elected official throughout the country, I continue to seek advice from my professional staff advisors on county staff, as well as my political advisors on messaging and communication.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
Front yard in flames
Both McCoy and Cheek think the records request by an unknown person is an attempt to quiet or discredit them.
In addition to the individuals named in the private investigator’s request, the document asks for communications that merely mention the stadium; Cheek’s ethics complaint; previous ethics complaints filed against Lee; McRae or his firm Seyfarth Shaw; and a lawsuit by a company contesting the county’s zoning approval for the Braves’ mixed-use development.
When asked how many emails are responsive to the request, Cobb spokesman Robert Quigley said: “Still counting (but) in excess of 10,000. Those key words are very common so a lot of stuff is getting picked up.”
The county has estimated the cost of producing the records at more than $1,600.
Susan McCoy says she’s already dealt with an element of intimidation after announcing that she has filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to the county’s plan to issue up to $397 million in bonds to finance stadium construction.
A week later, someone approached her property in the early morning hours of Sept. 18, poured gasoline on her fence and garden, then torched it.
Security cameras mounted to McCoy’s home captured the fire being set.
The video examined by the AJC shows the fire from three different camera angles. The motion sensor cameras show the early stages of the fire as it races across the front fence line of McCoy’s property. Seconds after it ignites a figure appears on screen running from the flames and getting into a vehicle. A separate angle shows the flames spreading across McCoy’s driveway and dancing at least 20 feet high into the night sky.
Approximately eight minutes after the fire is started a vehicle is seen driving past the burning yard toward the exit of McCoy’s secluded neighborhood. McCoy says there was no call to 911 and she discovered her burned fence in the morning when she woke up.
There was a strong odor of gasoline the next morning and several burn locations, noted by police in their report.
“It is a crazy story,” McCoy said. “I don’t think they knew I had video cameras.”
McCoy told investigators that she thinks the fire was related to her SEC complaint, according to the Cobb police report, but investigators have not established that as the motive.
Arson investigators posted a sign in McCoy’s front yard offering a $10,000 reward for information to help solve the case.
On Oct. 7, the private investigator included McCoy’s name as one of two private citizens in the public records request to the county. She says her few emails to the county echo what she has said publicly. In fact, when she learned of the request earlier this month, she called Woodall and told him she’d be happy to answer any of his client’s questions.
She never heard back.
Meanwhile, Tom Cheek took the issue directly into the commission’s chambers last week. He confronted Lee about the records request during the public comment portion of the meeting. Cheek spent three minutes giving Lee an earful.
“I have a private investigator investigating me and another public speaker who disagreed with your political decisions, along with two members of this board,” Cheek said. “Is that the price one pays for public comment? Does a private citizen speaking here run the gauntlet of private investigators and personal attorneys?”
Lee listened from the dais, but offered no response.