Ex­perts ques­tion work on air­port con­tracts

Rome News-Tribune - - NEWS -

AT­LANTA — Two law part­ners had such strong fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests in con­ces­sions at At­lanta's air­port that le­gal ex­perts ques­tion whether they should have been al­lowed to de­fend the award of such con­tracts in court.

The re­view by The At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion ques­tions the in­volve­ment of Wil­liam K. Whit­ner and Den­nis El­lis. They're part­ners at the law firm of Paul Hast­ings, and also close to former At­lanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Paul Hast­ings de­fended the fair­ness of lu­cra­tive con­tract awards when the Reed ad­min­is­tra­tion was ac­cused of steer­ing them to po­lit­i­cal donors; helped re­solve the threat of a whistle­blower law­suit by fired air­port gen­eral man­ager Miguel South­well; and ul­ti­mately ad­vised the city's re­sponse to a fed­eral cor­rup­tion probe of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing at the air­port.

Whit­ner's wife worked as vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel for Con­ces­sions In­ter­na­tional, an air­port con­ces­sion­aire that won a dis­puted con­tract in 2011 and an­other in 2016. El­lis and celebrity chef G. Garvin founded LowCoun­try Restau­rants, which in 2011 was awarded space on Con­course A.

Le­gal ex­perts tell the news­pa­per the firm should have dis­closed its at­tor­neys' con­flicts of in­ter­ests, re­frained from such work and sought a waiver for other air­port work.

"Be­cause Whit­ner and El­lis had such strong fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests in the air­port res­tau­rant con­ces­sions, we will never know how those cases would have turned out dif­fer­ently if the city had not been rep­re­sented by eth­i­cally com­pro­mised lawyers," said Clark Cun­ning­ham, a pro­fes­sor of le­gal ethics at Ge­or­gia State Uni­ver­sity. "For ex­am­ple, lawyers who didn't have a per­sonal in­ter­est might have re­ported to the city that pro­ce­dures were in­ap­pro­pri­ate or un­cov­ered cor­rupt prac­tices in 2012 and 2016 that may now be the sub­ject of one or more fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions."

At a min­i­mum, the firm should have dis­closed the con­flicts of its at­tor­neys in writ­ing to the city, re­frained from work­ing on those cases and sought a waiver for other air­port work, ac­cord­ing to Kathryn Webb Bradley, a law pro­fes­sor and Di­rec­tor of Le­gal Ethics at Duke Uni­ver­sity Law School.

The city could pro­duce no such doc­u­men­ta­tion af­ter the news­pa­per re­quested it through the state's open records law. In fact, Whit­ner in 2011 cer­ti­fied that Paul Hast­ings had no con­flicts of in­ter­est — two months af­ter his wife took her job at Con­ces­sions In­ter­na­tional.

"It looks like re­ally, re­ally bad be­hav­ior," said Bradley.

Head­quar­tered in Los An­ge­les, Paul Hast­ings has earned $10.9 mil­lion from the city for a range of cases — most of it re­lated to the air­port — with hourly fees of up to $950, ac­cord­ing to billing records through May.

The firm col­lected at least $1 mil­lion for work com­pro­mised by the fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests of its at­tor­neys, Cun­ning­ham said. He cited Ge­or­gia state rules on at­tor­ney con­duct that say: "A lawyer shall not . con­tinue to rep­re­sent a client if there is a sig­nif­i­cant risk that the lawyer's own in­ter­ests . will ma­te­ri­ally and ad­versely af­fect the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the client."

"The ex­tent of pro­hib­ited work may be much greater than $1 mil­lion," Cun­ning­ham wrote in an eight-page anal­y­sis for the news­pa­per. The con­flicts of the at­tor­neys were so sig­nif­i­cant that bar rules would have prob­a­bly pre­vented the firm from even seek­ing a waiver from the city, Cun­ning­ham and Bradley said.

Whit­ner did not re­spond to ques­tions, but his wife said she had no own­er­ship or profit in­ter­est with Con­ces­sions In­ter­na­tional, and re­ceived no bonuses or com­mis­sions re­lated to air­port con­tracts.

El­lis is­sued a state­ment through a spokesman: "Mr. El­lis vi­o­lated no Rules or laws, and any sug­ges­tions to the con­trary are false."

A spokes­woman for Paul Hast­ings wrote in an email that she could not an­swer ques­tions due to "client priv­i­lege and con­fi­den­tial­ity."

"The opin­ion you are re­ly­ing upon ap­pears to be premised on a num­ber of in­ac­cu­rate as­sump­tions about the facts and ap­pli­ca­ble law," says the state­ment from spokes­woman Arielle Lapi­ano. She de­clined to iden­tify those in­ac­cu­ra­cies.

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