AG: Atlanta City Hall does not face criminal charges in records probe


Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office does not intend to bring criminal charges against the city of Atlanta in the investigation into alleged open records violations at City Hall, according to a letter obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

The letter, however, leaves open the possibility that individuals could be prosecuted if evidence supports it.

The letter shines new light on the direction of the probe, which started in March after reports by the AJC and Channel 2 showed the city’s communications and law departments tried to hinder production of public records.

“The Attorney General has no intention of charging the city of Atlanta with the crime of violating Georgia’s open records laws or other crimes, and hereby agrees not to do so,” Senior Assistant Attorney General David McLaughlin wrote May 4.

If evidence supports charges, he wrote, “only individuals would be criminally charged.”

RELATED CONTENT: CITY HALL TEXTS

· ‘No action needed’: Texts show possible Kasim Reed role in records request

· No violations in text, record case, law firm tells Atlanta and GBI

· Top Reed aide pressured officials to delay records release, texts show

McLaughlin’s letter removes potential criminal liability for the municipality, but legal experts say the city could still face civil penalties under the Georgia Open Records Act, which calls for fines of up to $2,500 per violation.

“A local government could be held civilly responsible under the open records act, but whether a city could actually be held criminally responsible is an open question under the Georgia open records law,” said Gerry Weber, a lawyer and expert in constitutional law.

The Atlanta probe is the first criminal investigation under the state sunshine law since it was amended in 2012 to include criminal penalties.

Georgia’s sunshine laws were written to ensure that governments remain accountable to citizens. State law requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three days and provide records as soon as they are available.

Frustrating requests is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail.

Focused on ‘bad actors’

The letter shows the city sought to understand its legal liability and wanted staff attorneys and ones from law firm Dentons, its outside counsel in the matter, to attend interviews with city officials.

The AG’s office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation did not believe that was appropriate, McLaughlin wrote.

McLaughlin referenced conversations with Dentons and “concern the city itself might be charged” with a crime.

Given assurances the city would not be charged, McLaughlin said, he understood lawyers from Dentons and the city would not attend GBI interviews. Employees are, however, allowed to bring their own attorneys.

“I think the attorney general’s office has made it clear they are focused on the individual bad actors,” Weber said. “Now the city should be fully, fully cooperative with the attorney general’s office, because there is no risk under this letter for the city for criminal violations.”

Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University communication professor who teaches communication law, called the AG’s office move a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for the city.

“Normally people cooperate more quickly with the threat of prosecution hanging over their head as to opposed to having the threat of prosecution removed,” he said.

The GBI and the AG’s office declined comment. 

In a statement, Bottoms’ office said “The City continues to work with the Attorney General’s office to ensure that we are compliant with the spirit and the letter of the law.”

The letter was addressed to Chicago-based Dentons partner Rachel Cannon and Atlanta partners Sam Olens and Thurbert Baker. Cannon is a former assistant U.S. Attorney, and Olens and Baker, respectively, served as Georgia’s two most recent attorneys general.

Olens and Baker both were known as champions of public access during their respective stints as Georgia’s top law enforcement official.

RELATED CONTENT: GBI RECORDS PROBE

· GBI makes unannounced visit to Atlanta City Hall in records case

· AJC, Ch. 2 ask AG to mediate open records complaint against Atlanta

· ‘Political interference’: AJC, Ch. 2 file AG complaint against Atlanta

The GBI probe started in March after the AJC and Channel Action News 2 reported on efforts by a press secretary for former Mayor Kasim Reed, who instructed another staffer in the city’s watershed department to delay production of water billing records for city elected officials to Channel 2.

Subsequent reporting found the law department provided legal invoices to the AJC last year that weren’t genuine records.

Text messages by Reed’s former top spokeswoman, Anne Torres, showed she pressured the Atlanta Beltline CEO to ignore the agency’s attorney and delay the release of the CEO’s employment contract.

Other text messages obtained by the AJC and Channel 2 raised questions about whether Reed may have played a role in delaying production of travel records for Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell.

Reed and others have denied any wrongdoing.

In April, the AJC and Channel 2 Action News filed a complaint with the AG’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests and seeking mediation to reform city behavior. It also seeks the appointment of an independent public records officer who would be free from political meddling.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has pledged to reform the city’s open records practices. On May 7, three days after McLaughlin’s letter was drafted, Bottoms introduced new legislation that would create a “transparency officer” to ensure compliance with state sunshine laws, echoing the AJC/Channel 2 request.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

SUNDAY’S WEATHER-TRAFFIC: Drier, hotter weather pattern shifts into North Georgia
SUNDAY’S WEATHER-TRAFFIC: Drier, hotter weather pattern shifts into North Georgia

Sunday: High: 91 Sunday night: Low: 74 Monday: High: 94 Atlanta and North Georgia will get a much-needed break from the past few days of severe storms, Channel 2 Action News reported. The cold front pushing this moisture and thunderstorms into Georgia has moved past us, meaning clearer skies. That also means it’ll be hotter. "...
Police chase ends in wreck; 5 taken to Atlanta hospitals, including 3 kids
Police chase ends in wreck; 5 taken to Atlanta hospitals, including 3 kids

A vehicle fleeing Georgia State Patrol pursuit ended up wrecking into two other vehicles Friday night, sending five people to Atlanta hospitals, GSP confirmed. A trooper noticed a white Hyundai allegedly speeding and weaving on I-75 South near Northside Drive and attempted to stop the vehicle, according to a GSP news release. The Hyundai allegedly...
Man fatally shot in NW Atlanta, police confirm
Man fatally shot in NW Atlanta, police confirm

A man was fatally shot in Atlanta early Saturday morning, Atlanta police confirmed. Officers responded to a shooting at 2:30 a.m. at 62 Harwell Road in northwest Atlanta and found a 31-year-old man dead outside of one of the buildings there, Atlanta police said. Atlanta police are investigating the incident, and they haven’t determined the circumstances...
Small earthquake registered in Middle Georgia near Macon
Small earthquake registered in Middle Georgia near Macon

A small earthquake occurred near Macon Saturday morning, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The 2.4 magnitude quake was reported in Jones County near Gray, which is about 90 miles southeast of Atlanta. It’s less than 15 miles from Macon. It was reported at 9:55 a.m. There haven’t been any reports yet of anyone feeling shaking from...
GBI identifies son who allegedly shot his mother before 3-hour SWAT standoff
GBI identifies son who allegedly shot his mother before 3-hour SWAT standoff

The identity of the man who allegedly shot his mother in Jackson County Friday, prompting a 3-hour SWAT standoff, has been released by the GBI during their initial investigation report into the incident. Jonathan Wayne Allen, 37, of Jackson County, has been charged with aggravated assault after he surrendered to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office...
More Stories