A story published Sunday by the Atlanta media describes attorney Dan McRae’s involvement in the deal between the county and the ballclub to build a new $672 million stadium in the Cumberland area. The story alleges Lee acted inappropriately by working with McRae from July through November 2013 without knowledge or approval from the rest of the board or county attorney Deborah Dance.
“The essence of the story is … that I worked with Dan McRae, who is the attorney for the Cobb County Development Authority. I worked with him at no cost to the county to help figure out what financial opportunities were available to the county as far as the Braves deal,” Lee told the Marietta Daily Journal earlier this month.
Dance told the MDJ on Thursday she has “authority and discretion to hire attorneys to work on behalf of Cobb County, Georgia.”
She said because McRae was not paid, she considers his work a public service.
“Because there was no attorney contract and no money exchanged hands relative to Dan McRae’s services on behalf of the county, my professional opinion is that he provided those services to the county pro bono as a public service,” she wrote in an email.
Dance declined to answer questions regarding whether she believed Lee acted unethically by working with McRae.
“I am going to decline to answer your other questions seeking my professional opinion as the county attorney. My role is to provide legal guidance to our elected officials and staff,” she wrote.
The Atlanta article goes on to say McRae included his firm, Seyfarth Shaw, as the county’s bond attorney in an early draft of the memorandum of understanding between the Braves and the county. The document spells out the terms of the agreement between the two parties. As county attorney, Dance removed the firm from the document in a subsequent draft.
She confirmed McRae’s firm was in fact, at one point, listed as bond counsel on Thursday.
“McRae’s firm name was included in a single draft of the MOU, as referenced in the AJC article,” Dance said. “… Upon observing the inclusion, I spoke with Mr. McRae and advised a decision had not been reached on outside counsel. I was aware at the time that the County had a competitively bid contract to perform bond work on behalf of the County. McRae did not object, and the document was approved by the full board of commissioners with no reference to the firm,” Dance said.
Calls made to Chairman Lee were not returned by press time.
Ott, Cupid weigh in
Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area where the stadium is planned to be built, said Lee may not have broken any laws, but it doesn’t mean what he did was right.
“I don’t think that he violated any laws or procedures, but he clearly violated the spirit of the law because that’s not how things are supposed to be done,” Ott said.
Ott said while he understood the need for secrecy at times, “there comes a time when that has to end and the rest of the commissioners have to be brought on board. And that clearly wasn’t done, which is inappropriate. There’s five of us up there with equal votes. You know, we should be all up there working together, not independently. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree, but we can’t be working outside of the full board.”
When he finally did find out about the Braves deal, Ott said “it seemed like everybody knew but me.”
Ott said if there was a need for secrecy on the deal, only a handful of people should have known, “and that doesn’t mean kitchen cabinets, especially if the Board of Commissioners doesn’t know.”
The board needs to examine its procedures, Ott said, to “make sure that the board … is involved in future endeavors.”
Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who was the lone vote against the memorandum of understanding between the Braves and the county in November, said she does not have enough information to say whether Lee violated any ethics code.
“Nonetheless, the hurried pace of the deal, along with limited public engagement for significant public dollars, will continue to leave the perception that there was a violation of public trust somewhere along the way,” she said.
Cupid also said McRae’s involvement did not follow the procedure as she understood it.
“That’s typically not protocol, from my experience, for an attorney to be engaged without it going through legal or through the commissioners. That I don’t mind sharing,” she said.
Goreham, Birrell state the facts
Commissioner Helen Goreham offered no opinion
“I know that the AJC ran their article. And there has been — probably — some public reaction to it, not very much. But based on the only facts that I have are the facts that no county moneys were paid to Mr. McRae. No contract was issued to Mr. McRae. And it appears that the chairman was seeking expert advice in an area that he does not have any expertise in,” she said.
Goreham, who is retiring from her post at the end of the year, added some commissioners may seek outside legal advice before an issue is voted on. She would not, however, say whether she believed Lee acted unethically.
“Based on the facts I have, I don’t see — well, I don’t even want to go there,” she said.
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell took a similar path.
“I guess, with his background and knowledge, the chairman asked him for advice. So, I mean, it’s my understanding that there was no contract, per se. He was doing everything and not charging the county for his work. So, that was my understanding of the scenario.”
Birrell said any decision regarding legality or an ethics violation would be investigated by the proper authority, if necessary.
“I guess a court of law or the attorney general or someone would have to determine if there was an ethics violation or anything was done illegally. I don’t know,” she said.
Candidates offer their positions
Democrat Derrick Crump is challenging Republican Bob Weatherford to replace Goreham as the District 1 commissioner. The election will be held on Nov. 4.
Crump said Lee’s biggest mistake was not soliciting more input from taxpayers early on in the process.
“To really get to the point, and what I believe is the heart of the matter, and that is this: The people, the taxpayers, who I represent and who I speak for, simply were not represented. And that is really the travesty here,” he said.
Crump also disagreed with Lee keeping the Braves deal secret from the commissioners.
“I could never give consent to that sort of behavior because this is a board. And I don’t quite see how the board can function as a unified body if there are members of the board that are privy to certain information while others are not,” he said.
Weatherford took a different position, saying while he doesn’t know all the details, he seeks outside opinions “all the time.”
“Well, I certainly don’t know all the details. And I’ve learned to not always take everything I read as the truth. But I believe that it was appropriate to reach out to a subject matter expert,” he said.
Weatherford said the issue at hand is whether or not McRae was technically hired — an issue he cannot decide.
“Whether he hired him or not, I think, is what the question (is), and that would be something that — you know, someone other than me would have to make that determination if he did or not. That would be a subject of an ethics investigation.”