Two former Georgia Attorneys General, both known for advocating for the right to access public records, have been hired to represent the City of Atlanta in civil and criminal cases involving alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act.
One of them, Sam Olens, a Republican, revamped the open records law in 2012, making penalties for noncompliance more severe.
The other, former attorney general Thurbert Baker, a Democrat, successfully sued two local civic groups over records involving the city’s bids for the 2009 Super Bowl and the Nascar Hall of Fame.
Both work for the Dentons law firm and are winners of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Weltner Award, which honors a person or group who worked to significantly improve freedom of information in Georgia.
Together, they have been tasked with representing the city in a criminal investigation into how city employees responded to open records requests and a complaint filed by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News with Attorney General Chris Carr alleging systemic open records violations.
“He (Olens) probably knows the law better than anybody,” Carolyn Carlson, who teaches a media law course at Kennesaw State University and runs the school’s journalism program. “… I can’t imagine him wanting to fight” the AJC/Channel 2 complaint.
The hirings of the two high-profile lawyers appear to be a reversal from the initial decision of City Attorney Jeremy Berry to retain a another politically connected lawyer — Robert Highsmith — to represent the city on March 13.
Berry hired Highsmith’s firm, Holland & Knight, the day the Georgia Bureau Investigation started a criminal investigation into text messages from former Mayor Kasim Reed’s press secretary Jenna Garland that appear to frustrate Channel 2’s access to the water bills of elected officials. The GBI’s investigation subsequently expanded into questions about Berry’s own handling of an AJC records request.
Highsmith has personally represented Reed and newly elected Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in different matters. He’s also the city’s lobbyist.
Highsmith’s representation of the city for recent accusations of open records violations lasted only eight business days. He said on Monday that he had turned over a report to the GBI on March 22.
The report concluded that no city employee, including Berry, the official who hired him, violated the Georgia Open Records Act, Highsmith said.
“Specifically the city attorney, Jeremy Berry, had done absolutely nothing wrong in connection with his compliance with open records requests,” Highsmith said.
Meanwhile, the GBI’s criminal investigation is ongoing.
The GBI began its investigation into the city’s handling of open records requests after reports by the AJC and Channel 2 quoted experts saying that city officials may have committed crimes by delaying the production of public records and creating documents that resembled legal invoices but weren’t actual invoices.
The stories revealed Garland instructed Watershed Department staffer Lillian Govus to “be as unhelpful as possible” and to “drag this out as long as possible” in response to Channel 2’s request in March 2017. Channel 2 sought records for Reed, his brother Tracy and City Council members, including city’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Garland also instructed Govus to “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”
Highsmith said his own report to the GBI found no wrongdoing on Garland’s part.
“What we concluded that (Garland) complied with the Open Records Act,” Highsmith told the AJC. “The text messages reflected an exchange between two people that, had the behavior going forward reflected that inter-employee banter, maybe the investigation would have turned out differently. But the records were ultimately produced.”
Agents from the GBI also said they were looking into matters involving the city’s law department after an AJC investigation last month showed Berry provided the newspaper with documents purported to be legal invoices that weren’t the actual invoices submitted to the City of Atlanta by its outside law firm, Baker Donelson.
Berry, a former Dentons lawyer, said he was acting in good faith and fulfilled the records request by creating “summaries” of information drawn from actual invoices.
Complaint seeks mediation
On April 11, lawyers for the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with Carr’s office, alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests at City Hall, and requesting mediation.
The complaint outlines 10 examples of alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act and “a pervasive culture of non-compliance” dating to July 2016. The AJC and Channel 2 are seeking the appointment of an independent public records officer who would be free from political influence, among other reforms.
Bottoms campaigned on greater transparency in city government and has promised to overhaul the city’s ethical guidelines. Responses to public records requests have been more swift since since she took office. But some of her cabinet members, most of whom are Reed holdovers, have been forced to defend actions they took under Reed’s administration.
On April 9, Bottoms demanded the resignation of all her Cabinet members with the exception of two that she had hired herself. She said she would decide whose resignations she would accept in the days ahead.
Bottoms’ administration has already accepted the resignations of former Communications Director Anne Torres and Finance Director Jim Beard.
Richard Hyde, chief investigator with law firm Balch & Bingham, who worked for Baker and Olens in their capacities as attorneys general, said that the hiring of his former bosses was encouraging.
“That shows that the city perhaps is taking it as seriously as they always should have,” he said. “Maybe the city gets it — that the records belong to the citizens of the state.”