ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
Reed did not answer questions about the findings, and instead issued a statement calling the newspaper’s coverage of him and the three-year federal investigation into his administration “unfair and unprecedented.”
Companies that lost bids challenged their award, alleging city favoritism. The challengers were unaware of the lawyers’ ties.