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Local Govt & Politics

    The secret legal settlement between former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration and fired airport general manager Miguel Southwell has become a major focus of the on-going federal corruption investigation at Atlanta City Hall, new records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show. The development is significant because prosecutors appear to be probing unanswered questions about how the city’s law department negotiated the settlement’s terms, why a portion of it was kept from City Council and who paid Southwell $147,000 to resolve the dispute. “It’s important for us to understand how that occurred, where the money came from, and who allowed it to occur,” Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore told the AJC. Mark Trigg, the attorney hired by the city to negotiate the 2016 settlement with Southwell’s attorney, testified Dec. 11 before the federal grand jury considering evidence in the now four-year-old corruption probe, according to legal bills and emails obtained by the AJC. Trigg also provided federal prosecutors with text, email and voice mail messages related to the Southwell settlement, after extended negotiations with federal prosecutors over allowable redactions intended to protect attorney-client privileged communications, the documents show. Prosecutors continued seeking unredacted messages as recently as Feb. 27. Attorney Thomas O’Brien and other lawyers with a Los Angeles-based firm that is working for the city on federal investigation issues submitted legal bills to the city for work from Oct. 19 to Jan. 31, with at least 44 instances of billable hours for work related to Trigg. “Prep meeting with Mark Trigg and (his) counsel; meeting with (federal prosecutors) and FBI to discuss disclosure limitations; attend grand jury; debrief with Mark Trigg and counsel; update mayor and city attorney,” says a Dec. 11 entry that billed the city law department for 6 hours at $950 per hour. The AJC received the invoices after requesting them through the Georgia Open Records Act. One of Trigg’s attorneys on Wednesday provided the AJC with a statement that described Trigg as a witness. The statement also said Trigg turned over information at the request of federal prosecutors about issues that the city “has expressly authorized him to provide.” “Mr. Trigg has been advised that he is neither a subject nor a target of the pending investigation,” the statement says. “Quite to the contrary, he is merely a fact witness regarding certain isolated events within the scope of the investigation.” Testimony before federal grand juries is secret. Witnesses aren’t prohibited from revealing what they told the grand jury, but Paula Junghans, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney for Trigg, declined to provide additional information. Settlement defused a crisis Reed fired Southwell in May 2016 — a move that set off explosive allegations, with both men accusing the other of illegal activities. The broadsides came at an inopportune time for Reed, who was a surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and was being vetted for a high-profile role in her administration. By August of that year, the two men reached a detente. They released a vaguely worded statement in September retracting their previous allegations of illegal conduct. The statement also referenced a “resolution” to the matter, although a Reed spokeswoman denied Southwell had been paid as part of it. City Council approved a $85,516 settlement in December 2016, which council members were told would pay for career counseling, job placement assistance and health insurance. The Reed administration told council that the money represented the full settlement with the fired airport boss. But last summer the AJC and Channel 2 Action News revealed the secret portion of the agreement after the news organizations obtained emails and other documents that showed Trigg and Southwell’s attorney, Lee Parks, finalizing plans for $147,000 in additional payments to Southwell from unspecified sources. The agreement was remarkable because the full settlement was hidden from City Council, and it turned out the vast majority of the $85,516 authorized by council actually went to Parks’ law firm for his fee in negotiating the secret portion of the settlement. Parks told the AJC in August that “the manner in which the (Southwell) settlement was memorialized was dictated by the attorney for the City and Mayor Reed.” Parks declined comment for this story. The city’s law department is responsible for hiring outside counsel and approving its work. Cathy Hampton was the city attorney at the time of the Southwell negotiations. She stepped down from that position in 2017. Thursday, the AJC reported that prosecutors are also examining the relationship between Hampton and Paul Hastings LLP, another law firm handling legal matters for the city in the federal probe. Expert: ‘They see some fire’ Demanding grand jury testimony from an attorney about a client is an unusual move by federal prosecutors because it typically requires obtaining permission from high-ranking officials in the Justice Department’s main office in Washington, D.C., said two former federal prosecutors. “It speaks to how important this information may be and how important this investigation is to the (U.S. Attorney’s) office,” said Bret Williams, a former federal prosecutor in Georgia and New York who is now in private practice. “I think they don’t just see smoke. I think they see some fire.” Some of that fire, Williams said, could be conspiracy or wire fraud, particularly if officials in the Reed administration sent emails or other electronic communications indicating intent to mislead the council on terms of the settlement. Reed said last summer that the circumstances surrounding Southwell’s firing were “thoroughly reviewed by the Justice Department and no wrongdoing or improper behavior was found.” He did not respond to text messages seeking comment on Trigg’s grand jury testimony. The city also did not respond to a request for comment. Testimony from attorneys rare Caren Morrison, a law professor at Georgia State University who was a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, said the legal invoices make her think prosecutors are looking at issues surrounding that settlement — as opposed to the allegations Southwell made after his firing that Reed steered contract awards to favored airport vendors. “I think they’re following up with the attorney specifically because it doesn’t seem that they’ve fully unraveled what exactly was going on with these payments in the first place — why City Council was lied to, why the payment to the lawyer was masked,” Morrison said. “And the attorney seems to be in an extremely good position, being one of the principles dealing with this matter or trying to set up this unusual payments scheme. “Attorneys are not frequently brought in before a grand jury. But when the investigation relates to a (process) that the attorney is an active participant in, then it makes sense to examine the attorney before the grand jury.” Though the settlement agreement did not disclose the source of the $147,000 payment to Southwell, emails from October 2016 showed Parks complained that his client had not been paid some two months after the agreement was reached. And the emails mentioned prominent Atlanta developer Scott Taylor, who at the time had major business ventures pending with the city. “Mark this is getting out of control,” Parks wrote to Trigg. “Scott Taylor now wants a contract that absolves him from payment. We have a contract with the city. It is your obligation to work with whoever is going to make the payments, without our having to separately contract with them.” Taylor’s firm, Carter, said it hired Southwell as a consultant for work related to airports outside Georgia after Reed fired him as Atlanta’s airport general manager. A spokesman for the company said Taylor had no knowledge of any settlement negotiations with Southwell, and didn’t know either of the lawyers involved. A lawyer for Trigg said Friday that Trigg “played no role in any third-party contracts to which Miguel Southwell may have been a party.” The legal invoices and emails obtained by the AJC for this story do not mention Taylor, who declined to comment.
  • Social media posts about mold and abuses inside the DeKalb County jail have led to a second week of protests. Pictures and complaints circulated on Instagram and Twitter last week, including allegations that prisoners were not receiving medical care and had been served moldy food. “DeKalb jail is mistreating us,” an inmate wrote on a disposable food tray, according to one image that was posted. Meg Dudukovich got involved with prisoner-rights group Atlanta Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee after seeing the viral posts. She said current and former inmates and their families have provided information about deteriorating conditions at the 24-year-old jail, and the Sheriff’s Office has been slow to respond. “They’ve been very dodgy about all the questions,” Dudukovich said. For the past two years, DeKalb Sheriff Jeffrey Mann has requested more funding in the county budget to address mold and aging equipment. Last year, he received $1.5 million in emergency funding to address mold and plumbing issues. » Related | After mold discovery, fixes coming to DeKalb jail The county commission and CEO Michael Thurmond allocated another $9.5 million in the 2019 budget to fix up the 1 million square-foot facility, including mold remediation, new elevators and other repairs. Atlanta Incarcerated Workers is planning a protest outside the jail on Memorial Drive at 5:30 p.m. tonight.  The first protest last Friday attracted about 50 people. The group reported that four people were arrested after protesters pushed their way into the jail lobby with bread they said they wanted to give prisoners.
  • A city plan to put contextual markers citing slavery as a cause of the Civil War next to four of Atlanta’s Confederate statues this spring has hit a snag. The proposed markers are part of a larger city initiative to address the presence of controversial Confederate-named streets and monuments in Atlanta. A City Council committee charged with implementing the overall plan, which includes the markers, projected in January that they would be installed by late spring. During a committee meeting on Wednesday, however, members said it would take at least until the end of the year to get them in place. The reasons for the delay: Deciding who will pay for the signs and the process of getting the proposal vetted and approved by other city departments before it’s voted on by the full council. “I wanted to have this done by now,” said Council Member Carla Smith, who heads the three-member street names and monuments committee. The monuments in question are the Confederate Obelisk and Lion of Atlanta in Oakland Cemetery; the Peace Monument in Piedmont Park; and the monument at the intersection of Peachtree Battle and Peachtree Roads commemorating the Battle of Peachtree Creek and North-South reconciliation. Though the city technically owns them now and maintains them, none were originally erected by the city. In the aftermath of the Civil War, organizations sympathetic to the Confederacy paid for them and had them installed. Now the city is working with the Historic Oakland Cemetery Foundation, the Piedmont Park Conservancy and the Atlanta History Center to figure out how to pay for the new signs that will augment them. Representatives from the cemetery, conservancy and history center attended Wednesday’s meeting. Smith said a donor has agreed to pay for the markers, at a cost of $2,000 each. The donor would then donate them to the city. Meeting participants debated whether the cemetery foundation and the park conservancy might pay for signs for their venues instead and assume maintenance of them once installed. Council Member Michael Julian Bond and Doug Young, Atlanta’s assistant director for historic preservation, said the city should take responsibility for both. Bond said that if the donation did not come through, it would be possible to get it allocated through the city’s general fund. “I think the city should completely own this, embrace it,” Bond said. Several city departments, including legal and parks and recreation, also will review the plans before they are brought to a council vote. All agreed that it wasn’t a question of whether the markers should be erected, but how quickly the wheels of city government could move to make it happen. “The conservancy agrees the panels are needed,” said, Mark Banta, chief executive of the conservancy. The proposed language for the markers varies with location, but all refer to the practice of racial segregation laws instituted after the Civil War that disenfranchised generations of African Americans.
  • A Cobb County detective has been reprimanded for violating the department’s code of conduct after posting derogatory remarks on social media about a Cobb Sheriff’s Office inmate who died in custody. Police Chief Mike Register said Det. Jeff Edgecomb had expressed remorse and will attend sensitivity and social media training to “help him make better decisions.” “We all agree, including the detective, that his comment was insensitive,” Register said. Edgecomb’s comments were made in response to the death of Jessie Myles, a 31-year-old man died after suffering an “unexplained medical event” at the county jail, according to the Marietta Police Department, which arrested Myles. “Non news story … a doper has a medical event and died at the hospital, not the jail,” Edgecomb wrote on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Facebook page in response to an article about Myles’ death. “Why are we reading about this??” According to a “critical incident reminder” provided by the police department, Edgecomb was found to have engaged in “unbecoming conduct,” “because his social media posts were insensitive to the death of another person and ultimately were tied to his employment as a Cobb County police officer.” Myles’ manner and cause of death are being investigated by the county medical examiner. The Cobb Sheriff’s Office said it provided Myles with medical assistance as soon as he showed signs of distress, but has declined to comment further, citing the investigation. If the medical examiner finds Myles’ death was caused by something that happened at the jail, Cobb police or the Georgia Bureau of Investigation could be called in to investigate. Chief Register said it would be up to the sheriff, but that if that were to happen, he would suggest GBI take the case. Three inmates, including Myles, have died in Sheriff’s Office custody since December. The manner and cause of those deaths are under investigation.
  • A title and escrow company plans to create more than 1,000 at its expanded national headquarters in Gwinnett County, officials announced Tuesday.  Partnership Gwinnett and the Georgia Department of Economic Development announced said that OS National LLC plans to invest more than $15 million in its headquarters off Satellite Boulevard near Gwinnett Place Mall.  “In selecting Gwinnett county for our national headquarters we believe we can support OS National’s explosive growth and strategic expansion efforts across the U.S.,” said Jamie Wunder, a managing partner with the company. “We recognize the county’s efforts providing businesses excellent options for growth and helping to grow a rich and diverse talent pool for the future.” PREVIOUS GWINNETT COVERAGE: Fleetcor Technologies relocating from Gwinnett County to Buckhead OS National helps provide title insurance and escrow services  on residential and commercial transactions. It recently celebrated its sixth anniversary and currently has about 300 employees in Gwinnett, officials said.  The company’s announced expansion is a bright spot for Gwinnett, which has rrcently seen a few high-profile businesses leave for more transit-friendly locations near Atlanta. The county rejected a referendum on joining MARTA last month. Said Andrew Carnes, senior director of economic development for Partnership Gwinnett: “We are always happy to work with companies to establish a new location in Gwinnett, but when an existing Gwinnett business chooses to re-invest and bring more jobs to the local community, it speaks volumes to our strong business ecosystem and the available resources that a thriving business needs to succeed.”
  • A bill that would have put the last parts of unincorporated Fulton County into the city of South Fulton failed to get a vote in the state Senate before the end of this year’s legislative session. As a result of the inaction, that city and Atlanta will continue their annexation attempts for another year. Both cities want the area along the Fulton Industrial Boulevard, a 7.5-square-mile stretch that brings in millions of dollars of tax revenue to the county and the Fulton County schools. The legislation would have sent the area to South Fulton, but left county-owned land, including the airport at Charlie Brown Field, unincorporated. The legislature has twice before passed legislation that would have put the area into South Fulton, only to have it vetoed by then-Gov. Nathan Deal. Atlanta lobbied for the legislation to be delayed this year, and it was tabled on Sine Die - the last day of the session. The legislation will still be alive for next year’s session, but since voters — and the state supreme court — said the area, which had been off-limits since the 1970s, could be annexed, the next year is largely expected to be a political free-for-all. “I think it’s going to be a tug of war on both sides,” said Rep. Roger Bruce, D-South Fulton and the legislation’s sponsor. “Basically, Atlanta is trying to snatch that area of Fulton Industrial.” In a statement, a spokesperson for the city of Atlanta, Michael Smith, said the city was “pleased” with the delay, “and looks forward to working with our neighbors to the south toward a reasonable resolution to the matter.” Ashley Minter-Osanyinbi, a South Fulton spokeswoman, said the city was “disappointed” with the end result, and “is engaging in its next steps in regards to annexation.” At a Fulton County delegation meeting last month, a representative for Atlanta said the city had been trying to negotiate a compromise, but South Fulton representatives denied that that was the case. Atlanta also promised it would not expand Atlanta Public Schools’ borders in any annexation, though legislators questioned the legality of that proposal. The two cities have been fighting over the area for more than two years. “No, I don’t think it’s going to be a compromise,” Bruce said. “I think both sides are going to be trying to get what they can.”
  • Hoping to avoid the type of drama that DeKalb’s ethics board has faced, members of the county’s elections board decided to be proactive in changing the way they are appointed. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year that DeKalb’s ethics board members appointed by community groups are serving unconstitutionally. Only elected officials can select people to serve on government oversight boards in Georgia, the ruling said. VIDEO: Previous coverage of DeKalb ethics issues The General Assembly recently approved a fix to get DeKalb’s ethics board back on track, but it has sat dormant for months. The county’s elections board has not been challenged, but members said there was no need to test fate. Related: Supreme Court ruling throws metro Atlanta ethics boards a curveball Related: Georgia legislators approve overhaul of DeKalb County’s ethics code Under existing rules, the two political parties receiving the most votes in an election -- usually the Republican and Democratic parties -- appoint two members each to the DeKalb County Board of Registration and Elections. Those four individuals then choose who the fifth and final member of the board will be. The General Assembly has approved a new law that adds another step to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. The legislation still allows the top two political parties to nominate two members each, but the chief judge of DeKalb’s Superior Court gets final say. The chief judge will also select the fifth of the elections board. Senate Bill 246 breezed through the legislative process, passing as part of a slate of local legislation in each chamber. It now awaits Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature. The change would go into effect immediately.
  • DeKalb County’s ties to a company that has become part of the Atlanta City Hall investigation go deeper than initially disclosed. County officials now say that addition to what was already known, the PRAD Group was also paid $563,975 for work on a public safety building and was likely a subcontractor on a lucrative wastewater facility project. It is unknown how much the company was paid, if anything, for that job. Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari, the former executive vice president of PRAD Group, was indicted on multiple bribery charges on March 6. Among the accusations is that he paid bribes to an unnamed DeKalb official in 2014. After his indictment became public, county officials said they could only find documents related to a single contract with PRAD, a 2004 award that paid the company $719,096 to design and construct a new facilities management building. Related: Atlanta City Hall probe seeps into DeKalb with bribery indictment However, PRAD Group boasts of additional work in DeKalb on its website. The company says it had a hand in building or renovating the county courthouse, juvenile detention center, jail and police and fire headquarters. On March 12, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the county for information about those projects. Officials said this week that after digging deeper into their records they found that PRAD was paid a total of $563,975 for a handful projects at the office complex in the city of Tucker that houses the police and fire departments and the county’s 911 call center. The county did not say whether there is any evidence the company performed work at the other facilities in DeKalb listed on its website. Those buildings could be controlled by other governmental entities besides the central county governments. Channel 2 Action News also discovered that PRAD was listed a subcontractor for a company that won a lucrative $17.5 million contract in DeKalb in 2013. That company, Tetra Tech, was named in a February federal subpoena that DeKalb County received. Related: EXCLUSIVE: Feds subpoena more records linked to ex-DeKalb commissioner That subpoena appeared to be related to an ongoing investigation of former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton. The records requested include any budget amendments or requests in 2016 that affect District 4, Sutton’s old seat. The subpoena also asked the county to supply documents related to the Atlanta-based Bell & Washington law firm, whose partner once represented Sutton. However, the same subpoena also asked for documents related to three firms who were awarded contracts in DeKalb through its purchasing and procurement office. In addition to Tetra Tech, documents were requested for the companies Environmental Consortium and Metals and Materials Engineers. All three have received millions in contracts for work aiding DeKalb’s Department of Watershed Management. When Tetra Tech submitted its bid for the 2013 contract, it said that PRAD Group and Environmental Consortium would be part of the team. Jafari was listed as PRAD’s representative.
  • A transgender woman arrested in Cobb over a $15 seat belt fine has filed suit against the sheriff, command staff and deputies alleging mistreatment at the county jail.  Sierra Castle says she was sexually harassed by deputies and inmates after jail staff publicly outed her as a transgender woman and refused to place her with other female inmates. They also denied her prescribed medication and ignored her requests for medical attention, she says. “I was afraid. I was embarrassed. I was humiliated,” Castle told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  According to the lawsuit and her lawyer, Castle is seeking damages and remedial action by Cobb to ensure that no one else will be subjected to the type of treatment she alleges.  It all begin last March, when Castle visited a Cobb County police station to file a report about a minor traffic incident that resulted in damage to her vehicle. While there, officers ran her license plate and found a DeKalb County bench warrant for an unpaid $15 seat belt fine.  Castle was arrested on the spot and taken to the jail. On the way, she said she became anxious and informed the arresting officer that she was a transgender woman.  In retrospect, she regrets the decision to speak up. Castle had undergone gender reassignment surgery and legally changed her gender in court. All of her official documents reflect her gender as female, and she said she has no problems with her gender identity in daily life. “I honestly don’t think I should have even said anything, but I was nervous,” she recalled. “I’m not someone who goes to jail. I was scared.” Castle said the arresting Cobb County police officer was professional and polite, but when the officer informed the jail staff at intake that she was transgender, the mood shifted.  The sheriff’s deputies began laughing at her, and a male deputy patted her down despite her objections. Staff also tried to change her identification wristband to read “male” and temporarily altered her records in the computer system, she says. The booking report provided to the AJC by the Sheriff’s Office identifies Castle as female.  Over the next 18 hours that she remained in jail, Castle says she feared for her safety as she was repeatedly harassed and demeaned by deputies and inmates. It was when Castle says she was denied her medication that she made up her mind to hire a lawyer.  “I came so far that I knew that what they were doing was wrong,” said Castle, who is proud of having sought and obtained legal recognition of her gender. “There was no way they could treat me like this.” Her attorney, Ken Barton of Cooper, Barton & Cooper, said since taking Castle’s case, his firm has been contacted by others alleging similar treatment by the Cobb Sheriff’s Office.  Barton said the county has policies on the book about how to process transgender individuals that were not followed in this case. He said by filing the suit they hope to see justice for Castle and prevent any future incidents of a similar nature.  The county attorney’s office said “per normal procedure,” it would represent Sheriff Neil Warren in a lawsuit filed by an inmate, but it had “not been made aware of or served” with this particular case.  The Sheriff’s Office also said it had not been served, adding that it does not comment on pending litigation.  Court documents show the suit was filed in federal court last week.  The county is representing the sheriff in a separate lawsuit filed by an inmate whose hip was broken at the jail. It also represented him in a lawsuit filed by a Kennesaw State University cheerleader until a judge removed him from that suit. 
  • A lawsuit accusing the city of Doraville of using excessive fines and fees to pad its budget will be allowed to proceed, although a judge’s ruling pointed out the ground-breaking nature of the case. Two Doraville homeowners charged with code violations and two commuters who received traffic tickets are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed a year ago. Their argument is that the city’s police officers and municipal courts feel pressure to write citations for minor violations and that its processes violate due process and other civil rights for those charged with infractions. The Koch brothers-affiliated Institute for Justice, a libertarian advocacy organization, is financing the lawsuit. On Monday, the group celebrated when U.S. District Judge Richard Story denied Doraville’s motion to have the case dismissed. “Police are supposed to serve and protect, not ticket to collect,” Josh House, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, said in a news release. “Yet, that’s exactly what they are doing in Doraville. Today’s decision means that our clients will get their day in court to challenge the city’s illegal ticketing scheme.” Doraville, a city of about 8,330 residents, had a budget of $13.5 million. Fines and forfeitures accounted for between 17% to 30% of the revenue during any given year, Story wrote in his ruling. For most cities with 5,000 residents or more, less than 1% of their budgets come from fees and fines. A 2014 story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed Doraville’s reputation as a speed trap and found that the city collected more traffic fines per capita than any other in metro Atlanta. The city ranks sixth among U.S. towns with 5,000 residents or more when it comes to the percentage of total revenue that comes from fines, fees and forfeitures, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Doraville City Manager Regina Williams-Gates said the city believes the lawsuit is based on a false perception. “The City is not motivated; nor do we, issue citations in order to bring revenue into our city,” she said in an email. “To the contrary, our approach to property maintenance is to work with property owners to gain voluntary compliance. When compliance does not happen, we have no choice but to issue citations. Unfortunately, it is a mere fact that laws without enforcement are ineffective.” Story’s ruling did leave some room for him to reconsider the city’s motion to have the case dismissed. He pointed out the lack of legal precedent surrounding the central question of whether cases like this belong in his courtroom. Federal courts have not had much experience weighing in whether it is constitutional for municipal courts and law enforcement agencies to make decisions motivated by finances, the judge wrote. He scheduled a June hearing to hear more arguments on this point.