OPINION: Embattled former councilman gets 2nd chance at public life

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Former Atlanta City Councilman H. Lamar Willis was up for appointment in 2015 to an obscure post on the city’s Land Bank Authority.

The usual humdrum approval process became a heated discussion because Willis had been disbarred two years earlier. The council rejected him by an 8-7 vote, causing Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who supported Willis, to wonder aloud how long should he be banned from public service.

“Should we punish him forever?” she asked.

Well, in answer to her question, how about eight years?

Last month, the council voted unanimously to appoint Willis to the board that oversees the Beltline tax allocation district. It was somewhat fitting, because he headed the transportation committee almost 20 years ago when the Beltline was first envisioned. He said he introduced the Beltline legislation in the council.

The appointment is Willis’s second chance at public service, and we Americans are big on second chances. However, Willis, who is part owner of a restaurant and a small gaming company, is not so sure he wants to be in the news again because his history gets regurgitated.

“If I had known (his appointment) would cause the attention it did, I’d probably decline it,” he told me.

Elected in 2001 at age 30, Willis was the youngest council member and had a three-term career. It ended in 2013 in a bizarre election battle that was a bitter proxy war between two mayors — then Mayor Kasim Reed and his predecessor, Shirley Franklin.



Willis is now largely a footnote in city politics: He was the incumbent beaten by a wet-behind-the-ears candidate who was launching his own political career. That newbie is now Mayor Andre Dickens.

After being first elected, Willis was seen as a poor Atlanta kid who did well, earning a bachelor’s degree at Morehouse College, a master’s at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a law degree at Boston College. A 2002 AJC story was headlined, “Willis casts himself as council policy wonk.” He was appointed chair of the important transportation committee.

But by the time of the 2013 election, Willis was a deeply wounded candidate, a person who had gone through a divorce, a business dissolution, disbarment and, finally, the loss of his council seat.

In fact, Willis didn’t even want to run for a fourth term but was talked into it by a few supporters and a persuasive fellow who couldn’t take “No” for an answer — Mayor Reed, who was looking to shore up his backing on the council.

Franklin, who had broken with Reed, pushed hard for Dickens, who the paper called “a little-known Georgia Tech administrator.”

But Dickens was a fortunate unknown — not only did he have a former mayor attacking his opponent, she had an issue with which to do it. Just a month before the election, Willis had been disbarred because he put an injured child’s $30,000 settlement in a bank account he controlled, which is in violation of legal ethics. On top of that, he had earlier been fined $25,000 by the state for failing to properly register a charity he created.

He argued the child was ultimately paid and that he had screwed up with the money because his life was falling apart at the time.

Willis insists he was disbarred because he failed to answer the complaint against him. “When you’re going through a tough time, a lot of people respond differently,” he told me. “My response was to be very insular, almost reclusive. I responded by not responding.” However, he might have gotten disbarred anyway, as intermingling clients’ funds is a no-no.

During our hour-long talk, Willis was pulled away several times as he worked at his restaurant, the name of which he prefers not to publicize. He hopes to one day to seek to regain his law license.

I spoke with Shirley Franklin and mentioned Willis’ appointment. She said she has nothing against him, despite her utterances against him a decade ago. “That was politics,” she said. “This is life.”

She said her father, Eugene Clarke, was disbarred. According to a previous AJC story, Clarke had an alcohol problem and had at least 10 clients complain that he had taken their money but performed no work. He admitted taking $800 from them and was disbarred in 1950 at age 30.

In 1968, Clarke petitioned to get back his license with seven judges, a congressman and a host of others testifying on his behalf. The license was reinstated. In 1980, the Pennsylvania’s governor appointed him to fill a vacant judge’s slot and he later was reelected.

I called Mitch Skandalakis, the former Fulton County commission chairman who was convicted of making a false statement to an FBI agent during a corruption investigation and was sentenced to six months in prison. He was also disbarred.

Later, Skandalakis was thrown a lifeline by the head of Waffle House, who gave him a job in investigations and some promotions in the company.

In 2013, almost a decade after his conviction, Skandalakis was reinstated to practice law again.

Now, he said, his job is, “Helping people get past their criminal problems. I believe most everyone needs a second chance.”