Augusta Finance Department records show the city of Augusta paid an Atlanta law firm $21,066.50 for consulting services related to several matters involving disputes with local news organizations over the Georgia Open Records Act.
Augusta Commission meeting minutes do not reflect that the body officially approved paying the consulting fees to Dentons US LLP for its services in regard to a 2021 case, The Augusta Press et al. v. The City of Augusta.
Invoices as well as an email from City Attorney Wayne Brown to Finance Director Donna Wiliams show that it was Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. who requested the firm, led by former Georgia Attorney General Samuel Olens.
In the email to Williams, Brown claims the charges on the invoices were “incurred by Mayor Davis.”
Finance records show the Olens was paid $14,696.50 for consultation in the suit filed in April 2021. However, Olens was not listed as co-counsel in any court documents and never attended any of the three hearings that were held in the case.
The lawsuit was filed in Richmond County Superior Court to compel the city to turn over public documents related to the search for a new fire chief. Judge Jesse Stone found the city in violation of the open records and ruled for the plaintiffs which included The Augusta Press, The Augusta Chronicle, WRDW television and WJBF television.
The city also paid Olens $5,265 for consulting in another ongoing matter involving the open records law.
The Augusta Press has repeatedly requested emails sent from Davis’ private email account that pertain to city business. At first, the mayor claimed no such emails existed. He later changed his story and said some emails might exist, but that they were on his private account and therefore not subject to the law.
Olens attended a meeting in June 2021 with Wayne Brown, David Hudson, attorney for The Augusta Press, Joe Edge, publisher of The Augusta Press and Petula Burks, the mayor’s chief of staff to discuss the law pertaining to the emails and other documents that had been requested. Davis did not attend the meeting.
In the meeting, which was recorded, Olens told Brown if such emails did indeed exist, then they were subject to the Open Records Act and the city should comply with the request. However, Olens also added there was no stipulation in the law that the mayor give total access to his private email without a warrant.
So far the city has not heeded Olens’ advice in turning over multiple requests for documents and emails and according to Edge, the ongoing dispute is likely headed to court if the city does not reverse its position and comply with the law.
Some Augusta Commissioners appeared to be broadsided by hearing of the total expenses paid in legal consulting fees. The city paid Olen nearly $15,000 for advice, in comparison, the total bill submitted to The Augusta Press for legal services throughout the entire court case amounted to less than $10,000, according to Edge.
District 10 Commissioner John Clarke did not remember ever voting on paying the fees and said if he had been presented with the amounts due, he certainly would have had questions.
“I think it’s ludicrous that we are paying someone to explain the law to our own attorney,” Clarke said.
According to District 3 Commissioner Catherine Smith-McKnight, the matter did briefly come up in a legal meeting, but the information presented was vague at best.
“I had no idea they were using someone from Atlanta when we have plenty of fine attorneys here in Augusta,” she said.
District 8 Commissioner Brandon Garrett also remembered the conversation, but said it seemed to be an “umbrella request,” and he did not recall being given the specifics either.
In the email to Donna Williams, Brown stated the commission had authorized the payments, however, such a vote was never recorded in the minutes of the Oct. 12 meeting. The Clerk of Commissions Office could also not find a record of such a vote.
Meanwhile, in related news, Davis’ former private attorney Ed Tarver complied with a request and sent a copy of Davis’ private emails that prove Davis does use the account to conduct city related business, avoiding the Open Records Law.
The letter from Tarver also stated that due to a possible conflict of interest his firm no longer represents Davis.