ON AIR NOW

LISTEN NOW

Weather

cloudy-day
79°
Rain
H 83° L 73°
  • cloudy-day
    79°
    Current Conditions
    Rain. H 83° L 73°
  • rain-day
    83°
    Today
    Rain. H 83° L 73°
  • clear-day
    85°
    Tomorrow
    Mostly Clear. H 85° L 66°
LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Wsb news on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Wsb traffic on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Wsb weather on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

Local Govt & Politics
Secret settlement with fired airport chief new focus of federal probe
Close

Secret settlement with fired airport chief new focus of federal probe

Secret settlement with fired airport chief new focus of federal probe
Federal prosecutors have sought testimony and records related to a secret settlement between then-Mayor Kasim Reed, left, and Miguel Southwell, the former airport general manager who Reed fired in 2016. The two men are pictured here in a photograph from 2015. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Secret settlement with fired airport chief new focus of federal probe

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.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The city of Atlanta hired attorney Mark Trigg, left, to negotiate a settlement with Miguel Southwell, the airport chief who former mayor Kasim Reed fired in 2016. (Contributed by Dentons)
Close

Secret settlement with fired airport chief new focus of federal probe

Photo Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The city of Atlanta hired attorney Mark Trigg, left, to negotiate a settlement with Miguel Southwell, the airport chief who former mayor Kasim Reed fired in 2016. (Contributed by Dentons)

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.

Our reporting

The AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported last year that the city of Atlanta secretly brokered a settlement between former Mayor Kasim Reed and former airport chief Miguel Southwell, who Reed fired in 2016. Today’s story reports that federal prosecutors are investigating the details of the settlement.

Read More

News

  • A Dallas man who was found guilty of hitting and killing a couple while driving drunk has been sentenced to four months in jail and five years' probation -- a sentence the victims' families are frustrated with. >> Read more trending news  In November 2015, Lauren and Cedric Davis, both 26, were walking to a Dallas Mavericks game. They were on a sidewalk approaching the American Airlines Center when Kevin Christman drove through a red light and onto the sidewalk, striking the couple, according to media reports from the time.  Cedric Davis died at the scene, and Lauren Davis died the next day. Christman, then 28, was drunk at the time of the incident, police said. He was initially charged with two counts of intoxication manslaughter, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. More than three and a half years after the incident, Christmas was sentenced Wednesday to four months in jail and five years' probation. Tammy Benthall, Lauren Davis's mother, told WFAA-TV she doesn't believe the punishment fits the crime. “The system did not work. It failed us,” she said. “There is a hole in our hearts that will never be filled.” The couple's family and friends are working to change state law to ensure tougher punishment for drunken drivers, Benthall said. “We want to see laws changed so that other people are not sitting, grieving the loss of their daughter,” she said.
  • The first major theater release of a Harriet Tubman biopic will be out in the fall, and Focus Features has released the official trailer. EW.com reported that British actress Cynthia Erivo is already getting awards season buzz for her portrayal of the American abolitionist and political activist in 'Harriet.' >> Read more trending news  The trailer for 'Harriet' shows Tubman as she escaped the south as a runaway slave, making it to the north before deciding to go back and help others escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s. Singer and actress Janelle Monae, 'Hamilton' star Leslie Odom Jr. and country singer Jennifer Nettles are also seen in the trailer. 'Harriet' will be in theaters Nov 1. Watch the trailer below.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking a look at changing who is eligible for food stamps. The USDA will rein in the broad-based categorical eligibility, CNN reported. People with higher incomes and savings may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, under the categorical eligibility, which helps streamline the application process. It allows people to apply for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and gets rid of the asset test and offers a higher income threshold. >> Read more trending news  The Associated Press reported that people can qualify for the least amount of benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and still get SNAP benefits. The proposed change announced Tuesday will require some beneficiaries to work to be eligible to claim benefits. The department is also looking at how the poverty threshold is calculated. Recently, the TANF application, which some call a loophole, allowed a millionaire to get financial help, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, according to CNN. 'That's is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who received it,' Perdue said, according to CNN. The proposal will require those getting TANF to qualify for at least $50 a month in benefits for at least six months before SNAP benefits are automatically granted, the AP reported. Click here to read more on the proposal from the USDA. The public can comment on the proposal for the next 60 days, the AP reported. SNAP currently helps 38 million people to put food on the table. 
  • An Ohio man allegedly asked a therapeutic program worker for chips after having a snack. When the therapist suggested apples as a healthier alternative, the man reportedly punched the woman in the face, breaking her nose and causing a concussion, the Canton Repository reported. >> Read more trending news  Mylon Scott Mayle, 35, was charged Monday with misdemeanor assault and a parole violation, according to Stark County Jail records. He was being held without bond. According to jail records, Mayle was at Heartland Behavioral Healthcare in Massillon. After finishing his snack, Mayle approached a therapeutic program worker and asked for more chips, the Repository reported. When she told him he could have an apple instead, Mayle allegedly punched the woman in the face, according to the newspaper. Mayle was on parole after serving four years in prison for setting fire to a group home where he was staying, according to Stark County court records.
  • Hours after saying he wouldn't leave his own daughter with accused pedophile R. Kelly, the musician's crisis manager stepped down. USA Today reported that Darrell Johnson resigned after walking back comments he made Monday on 'CBS This Morning.' >> Read more trending news  On the morning show, when asked by Gayle King if he would allow his 20-year-old daughter to be alone with Kelly, Johnson said, 'I wouldn’t leave my daughter with anybody that’s accused of pedophilia. Period.' Johnson later told USA Today he spoke poorly. 'I should have worded it better,' Johnson said, adding he also meant to say, 'I would leave my daughter with Kelly because I do not believe he is a pedophile.' In a statement to the publication, Johnson confirmed he was no longer working for Kelly. 'This has nothing to do with Mr. Kelly it's for my (own) person(al) reasons,' he said. It's not clear what exactly Johnson's role with Kelly's team was. He was initially referred to as a publicist or spokesman for the singer, but several of Kelly's attorneys have told USA Today Johnson was not a part of Kelly's defense team. Steve Greenberg, one of Kelly's attorneys, told the publication Johnson was 'acting as a PR person.' But in a since-deleted tweet posted Monday, Greenberg said, 'Darryl Johnson is a crisis manager who has been assisting us and will continue to assist us. He is not a PR person, he is not a spiritual advisor. He has the full confidence of the defense team.' Greenburg later issued a formal statement on Johnson's exit, saying he 'decided to take some time off.' 'As has been reported, Darrel Johnson has decided to take some time off, for personal reasons, from his efforts on behalf of R. Kelly,' Greenberg said in a statement. 'The defense wants to thank Mr. Johnson for his tireless assistance and looks forward to his return. He shares our confidence that this is an unprecedented assault against R. Kelly by others, for their own personal gain, and the innocence of R. Kelly. 'There will be no further comment.
  • Drivers on I-35 in Dallas were surprised Monday morning to see a man driving a Lime scooter with the rest of traffic, cutting through five lanes in a seemingly nonchalant manner. >> Read more trending news  Driver Josh Weatherl captured the scooter rider on video with his dashboard camera just before 9 a.m. The unidentified man, wearing a backpack and headphones -- but no helmet -- checks over his shoulder before he crosses five lanes of traffic in about 15 seconds. Weatherl can be heard in the recording laughing and expressing his disbelief. 'Bro, what are you doing?' Weatherl exclaimed in the recording. 'Oh, my gosh. That is the most wild thing I've ever seen.' The man was probably going about 15 mph in a 60 mph zone, WFAA-TV reported. Weatherl told WFAA-TV he thought the man looked like he knew what he was doing. 'I think he’s done it before based on how calm he was, I don’t think this was his first rodeo,' Weatherl said. A Lime spokesman called the man's actions unsafe and said riders should not take the scooters onto highways, The Dallas Morning News reported.