GBI expands open records probe of Atlanta City Hall

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s criminal probe into Atlanta City Hall’s handling of open records requests now includes the law department and purported legal invoices it supplied to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall.

On Friday, GBI agents interviewed two AJC reporters about their interactions with Atlanta City Attorney Jeremy Berry and the documents he provided in response to a request last year for legal bills the city incurred from an outside law firm to respond to the ongoing federal bribery investigation of City Hall.

Last November, Berry provided documents that he said showed the costs incurred by the city from law firm Baker Donelson as part of the city's response to the pay-to-play scandal. Berry presented the documents as invoices, but an AJC investigation published on the front page of Sunday's newspaper showed the documents weren't actually invoices.

The article found city officials concealed billing records for the bribery probe in the account of a different city legal matter and directed the creation of new documents resembling invoices in an attempt to satisfy the AJC’s records request.

Experts told the AJC the actions ranged from unethical to potentially criminal.

Experts told the AJC that the decision of Atlanta City Attorney Jeremy Berry to create documents resembling legal invoices rather than providing the AJC with copies of the actual invoices ranged from unethical to potentially criminal. WSB-TV

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In an emailed statement, Berry said, that in both his private practice before coming to the city and since, “I have remained steadfastly committed to the Open Records Act and the need for transparency.”

“Consistent with this belief, the information that I produced was responsive to what the AJC sought and consistent with the law,” he said.

In a statement, Melissa Mullinax, a senior adviser to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, said the administration “remains committed to transparency and full compliance with the spirit and letter of the Open Records Act.”

The GBI opened a criminal investigation into open records matters at City Hall earlier this week.

On Monday, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asked the GBI to investigate text messages between Jenna Garland, a former press secretary for former Mayor Kasim Reed, and Lillian Govus, a former communications staffer in the city's watershed department. The messages showed the women coordinating a delayed release of public information requested by Channel 2 Action News.

Last year, Channel 2 requested water billing records for Reed, his brother Tracy and city council members, which prompted Garland to instruct Govus to “be as unhelpful as possible” and to “drag this out as long as possible” when fulfilling the request.

Garland also told Govus on March 7, 2017, to “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”

The matters are the first criminal probes ever conducted under the Georgia Open Records Act since violations of the state’s sunshine law became criminal offenses in 2012.

Garland left the city for the private sector last month, and Govus works for a school system in another state.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher and producer Terah Boyd were interviewed by the GBI earlier this week in relation to the Garland and Govus text messages.

On Friday, GBI agents Rocky Bigham and Clinton Thomas interviewed AJC reporters Stephen Deere and Dan Klepal who authored the Sunday story on the legal invoices. The agents met for about two hours in separate interviews with the journalists.

The interviews focused on the conduct of the city’s law and communications departments in relation to the purported Baker Donelson invoices and the city’s overall responsiveness to open records requests, Deere and Klepal said.

In statements, Berry has said the decision to bundle billing of the bribery investigation to another legal matter started before he joined City Hall last year and that he acted in good faith in producing the records he gave the AJC.

He said the documents provided the AJC last year accurately conveyed the legal billing hours and costs tied to the bribery probe from Baker Donelson, which was hired to help the city’s law department respond to demands for records by federal prosecutors.

Berry produced documents in November, about four months after Klepal requested the legal invoices as part of the AJC’s examination to the city’s response to the federal bribery investigation.

Bottoms, who was sworn into office in January, pledged in a press conference this week to fully cooperate in the state open records investigation and to review city protocols for responding to requests for public documents.

A city spokeswoman told Channel 2 this week the city won’t pay legal bills of past or present city employees related to a criminal investigation.