Holland & Knight attorney Robert Highsmith.

Torpy at Large: GOP cleanup man brings his mop to Atlanta City Hall

Attorney Robert Highsmith has long been the guy Republicans call when they’re in a pickle.

A few years ago, I told him he reminded me of a character in the movie “Pulp Fiction,” the one who directed an emergency cleanup of a car after John Travolta’s hit man accidentally blew the head off a guy sitting in the back seat.

“You mean The Wolf!” Highsmith squealed with excitement, referring to Winston Wolf, played by actor Harvey Keitel.

He was clearly honored by the reference. At first, I thought he was going to hug me. Instead, he pushed past me to hide his sponges and bleach containers hidden away in the office.

Highsmith and his firm, Holland & Knight, recently were called to bring their mops to Atlanta City Hall to help clean up a mess left behind by the administration of his buddy, former Mayor Kasim Reed, who is also an alum of that law firm.

Highsmith was called to investigate possible abuse of the Open Records Act by Reed’s people. Or maybe it was to lend some defense, because that’s what seems to have happened.

The need for such an investigation/defense came about because Jenna Garland, Reed’s press officer, was caught sending texts last year directing a water department employee to “drag this out as long as possible” after Channel 2 Action News requested billing records of city officials. Use the “most confusing format available,” she added.

As it turns out, “confusing” is Kasimspeak for being helpful. Garland was simply employing a little inter-office banter, the report found. And, Highsmith argued in the report, the city turned over the information in a non-confusing format.

Eventually, that is. It took more than 3 weeks — and nagging by Channel 2’s attorney — to finally get the records that should have taken two days.

In Highsmith’s defense, he and his partner only investigated the preliminary reports of obfuscation by city officials.

After his investigation was complete, more Garland texts surfaced. In those, she told the water employee: “Showed (open records request) to mayor. No action needed at this time.

Also, other damning texts from another Reed miscommunication officer surfaced. In these, Anne Torres urged the Beltline org to hold off on releasing public records, even though Beltline attorney Nina Hickson insisted they should be released immediately.

Mayor Bottoms is once again signaling she's putting distance between herself and former mayor Kasim Reed

(A note of praise here to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who marched lockstep with Hizzoner to win the office last fall but is now working to create space from him. The most recent sign of that shift is hiring Hickson as interim city attorney. Hickson is the one who decided to push back against Reed on records.)

As this glasnost continues, does this mean Highsmith’s firm, Holland & Knight, which has worked for the city for nearly 20 years, will get fewer calls from the City Hall Batphone?

March 2017 text messages between Jenna Garland, former Mayor Kasim Reed’s press secretary, and Lillian Govus, a Watershed Department communications manager, about an open records request from Channel 2 Action News.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Probably not. Mayor Reed realized — as did Mayor Shirley Franklin before him and now Mayor Bottoms — that the city needs a Republican Fixer in the wings when the GOP runs the state. He was there to help extend Atlanta’s sewer tax this year.

Highsmith didn’t want to talk much publicly about his business, saying he needs an OK from those who stroke the checks.

“The leadership of corporations and public entities frequently call on us to navigate governmental matters with significant legal and reputational risks,” he said in a statement.

“In many of our matters, the initial public allegations seem egregious, but we ultimately prove them to be greatly exaggerated or even false.”

In the past, Highsmith has remained a busy boy when it comes to Atlanta-oriented work:

» He was Reed’s attorney both personally and politically.

» He lobbies for the city, MARTA, the Atlanta Development Authority and the Atlanta Hawks.

» He worked with the Hawks as they carved out a deal with the city to get $142 million in tax money to refurbish 18-year-old Philips Arena.

» He worked for the Beltline back when it was just a gleam in Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel’s eye, and Highsmith still lobbies for it.

» He was the treasurer for Reed’s committee that pushed a 1-cent sales tax during a successful 2016 referendum to fund transit. And he was still around last year when Reed used the leftover committee money as a political slush fund to bankroll the campaigns of friendly City Council members.

» Finally, when Reed rammed through changes to do away with pension boards and give the mayor more power in the matter, Hizzoner had a tough lawyer to help him.

The 47-year-old son of a judge from Baxley, a burg near Savannah, Highsmith attended Yale University and UGA Law School before bumping around in GOP politics. Finally, he settled in with Sonny Perdue when he upset the Dems and won the governorship in 2002.

During the next few years, Highsmith was the point man for the Perdue administration in changing the ethics laws. During this time, he established the foundation of becoming the man to get others out of trouble.

Don Balfour (right) — at the time a Republican state senator — and his lawyer Robert Highsmith head down the steps of the Georgia Capitol to the Senate mezzanine meeting room for Balfour’s hearing on August 16, 2012. Balfour was accused of ethics violations. (BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

He did it in a time-honored way of the legal profession: He helped put in place the codes that get people into a jam. And then he moved to the private sector and worked to get them out of it.

It’s a good business model. He has amassed gobs of goodwill with the pols he has saved. This surely can’t hurt his lobbying business, where aside from several public entities, he also represents a railroad, the state’s broadcasters association, a national title pawn company, a cellular giant, a health care company, and the purveyor of fireworks.

He’s also the campaign treasurer of David Shafer, the GOP favorite in the election for Gov Lite. So Highsmith’s star might continue rising if things work out as he’s expecting.

The fellow is wide-ranging. In the past, he swam with the sharks as a volunteer diver, cleaning (naturally) the tanks at the Georgia Aquarium. He also sang the national anthem at a Hawks game.

Given that he was there as they greased the skids on the $142.5 million tax deal to fix up the Hawks arena, he should have belted out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

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