Open the blinds
The Editorial Board’s Opinion
When it comes to Cobb County’s tarnished governance machine, the plot continues to thicken. Unnecessarily so, in our opinion.
For about all it would take to begin dialing back the destructiveness, evasiveness, chicanery, squabbling and sleuthing about in Cobb would be for County Commission Chairman Tim Lee to begin acting like he actually respects the concept of elected, representative government. Act like he works for the people and their best interest, in other words.
That’s not what we’ve seen in recent months. And Cobb, once viewed as a model of competent, lean government, is the worse for it. The corrosive spillover has likely damaged the rest of the Atlanta metro too. Shaking weary citizens’ confidence in government has far-flung, long-lasting risks after all.
Cobb’s rocky road away from healthy government transparency hit the public radar with last November’s news of the deal to move the Atlanta Braves to a new stadium in Cobb.
That announcement was followed by Lee’s ham-handed ramming through of an $400 million agreement cinching the project. Cloaked in four months’ worth of secrecy that would have made the NSA proud, Lee’s package deal was sprung on commissioners and shoveled from initial “Ta-Dah” disclosure to final vote in barely two weeks — weekends and part of a holiday week included.
That, sadly, was just the beginning. Tenacious sifting-through of records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered that Lee could be characterized as, at best, disingenuous in his after-the-fact explanations of just how legal counseling around a bond deal for the stadium project came to be provided. His assertions even shifted as AJC reporters uncovered new details.
We’ll recap briefly here: In summer 2013, Lee recruited bond attorney Dan McRae to begin negotiations with the Braves. Lee didn’t loop in the county attorney’s office. Or fellow commissioners.
In October 2013, Lee had the Cobb Chamber send a message to McRae’s law firm saying it was the county’s project and bond counsel for the stadium work. Sending that email through a nongovernment account kept it outside county systems subject to the Georgia Open Records Act. Or so some may have thought at the time.
Even casual observers of government can see the significant ethical problems here.
For his part, Lee in August at first denied that McRae negotiated with the Braves. Faced with email records, he later acknowledged that McRae did just that work.
Earlier this month, after the AJC obtained the latest email, Lee and a Cobb Chamber executive denied hiring McRae. “He was not promised any payment for the advice he provided, or the role he played. In fact, he was not hired or paid for the work,” Lee wrote in an email to the AJC.
If it all sounds sketchy, well, that inkling may be justified.
All of this brings us to the latest antics detailed on the Metro page of today’s AJC.
In another move that unnecessarily ratchets up the level of intrigue around what should have been an ordinary public-private partnership deal, a private investigative firm has requested thousands of emails related to the Braves project.
The emails being sought cast a curiously narrow dragnet. The Open Records Act request by an Acworth firm seeks all emails from personal or county accounts of a county spokesman and two commissioners, Lisa Cupid and Bob Ott. Cupid cast the lone “no” vote against a preliminary agreement with the Braves. Ott has tangled with Lee on multiple matters. Interesting? We think so.
Among others, the request seeks emails sent from, or to, two citizen activists and this newspaper. What’s up with that?
Good question. The private eye firm hasn’t identified its client, so as of now it’s anyone’s guess as to the reasons and motivations driving the inquiry. Which brings to mind the New Testament book of Matthew’s promise that, “there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.”
Cobb citizens, and other supporters of public transparency should be aware of this fluid situation and govern themselves accordingly. And they should ask themselves if the escapades around the Braves deal have been conducted in a manner befitting any reasonable standard of government appropriateness or openness.
We believe the clear answer is a thunderous “No.”
For his part, Lee contends that the AJC’s work is driven by an institutional opposition to the Braves’ move.
Not true, to put it simply.
We’ll say again here that the Braves, as a private entity, are to be expected to seek the best deal they can, wherever they can. That’s what businesses do: negotiate terms in their best interest.
We have no objection to the team’s move up I-75 to Cobb County.
For the record, we’re happy they’re remaining in the Atlanta metro.
That said, we believe Cobb’s mishandling of the deal up to this point has done a disservice to the Braves and what should have been a straightforward civic-private arrangement.
Had this agreement been reached in a more-forthright manner, we believe most of the blowback thus far seen wouldn’t have happened.
Things can still change for the better if Lee and others in Cobb decide to open the blinds and admit more sunlight into the stadium process going forward. That’s what citizens should demand and what this newspaper will continue working toward.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.
Excerpted from an Aug. 8 AJC interview with Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee. He did not respond to requests to write an op-ed for this page:
Why did you hire (bond attorney Dan) McRae to lead negotiations? “I didn’t choose him to be point man. When the Braves first came to us to talk about this prospect, clearly it was a big project and it had a lot of components to it. I wanted to bounce it off someone who had experience in the bond funding market that could help me understand if it was even feasible to try and do something like this… But he was not the lead negotiator for the county at all.”
Why didn’t he have a contract? “He was someone I sought out, saying would you mind helping me figure this out, just to see if we could move forward. Just as a subject-matter expert. And we never had a conversation about compensation.”
The county attorney didn’t know about the negotiations. Who was providing you with legal advice, if not Dan McRae? “Until my staff … got involved, everything up until that point … was as if you would do a feasibility gut check — is this something we should even move forward with? And he played a role in that, to include can we get to the point of an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that we can all agree on, that we can bring forward.”
So when talking about negotiations with the Braves, was that primarily you? “Primarily, yeah. In putting together what I thought would be best for the county to present to the commission for approval.”
And McRae’s role in that? “Just helping me understand what I could and couldn’t do financially.”
Isn’t that the role of an attorney? “I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know what their job is.”
Why didn’t you ask the county attorney for help? “I chose not to do that.”
From an Oct. 2013 email from a Cobb Chamber account sent to McRae’s law firm: “I am passing on to you the following provided by Chairman Tim Lee on behalf of Cobb County and its entities.” “The county confirms the attorney-client relationship between it and Seyfarth Shaw as its project counsel/bond counsel for Project Intrepid (code name for the Braves’ project).”
Timothy Terrell, an Emory law professor, in the AJC Oct. 5: “You don’t need to have a contract to have a client, and you don’t need to be paid to have a client.” “You can pick up a client by accident at a cocktail party. If a reasonable person thinks that lawyer is in their corner, that’s about all you need.”
From an Oct. 7 open records request filed with Cobb County by Woodall & Broome Anti-Fraud Compliance & Investigative Services:
Dear Open Records Duty Officer:
Pursuant to the Georgia Open Records Act, I request copies of the following documents:
1. All emails from the county or personal email accounts of Robert Quigley (a county spokesman), Lisa Cupid or Bob Ott (both county commissioners) that have been sent to or received from Dan Klepal (an AJC reporter), anyone at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tom Cheek, or Susan McCoy (two citizen activists) from September 1, 2013 to the present.
2. All emails from the county or personal email accounts of Robert Quigley, Lisa Cupid, or Bob Ott that have been sent to or received from any other individual from May 1, 2014 to the present regarding: (a) the Atlanta Braves stadium/development, (b) the pending ethics complaint by Tom Cheek against Tim Lee (or any of the allegations in the complaint), (c) any of the prior ethics complaints filed against Tim Lee (or any of the allegations raised in the complaint), (d) Dan McRae or the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw, or (e) the lawsuit by Fairly Breezy LLC, and filed by attorney Doug Haynie of the law firm Haynie, Litchfield, Crane & White, LLP, against Cobb County.
I request that copies of all responsive documents be produced to me within three business days of this request. If all such documents are not available within that time period, then please provide a description of the remaining documents and a timeline for when they will be available. I also request that if all or part of a requested record is withheld from production, you notify me of the specific legal authority exempting the requested record or records by reference to code section, subsection, and paragraph.
I understand that there may be costs associated with responding to this request. This letter confirms that I am willing to pay such reasonable costs that are actually incurred up to $500. If the estimated costs of production exceed $500, please notify me in advance.
Please contact me if you have any further questions or comments.