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Atlanta City Attorney Susan Pease Langford got a public scolding Monday from some of her clients. The Atlanta City Council, by a 5-6 vote, defeated a proposal to fire a law firm that Langford had hired to represent the city in the federal probe of Mayor Bill Campbell’s administration. But before that narrow vote, council members made no secret of their displeasure over how the firm was hired. For nearly an hour, grousing council members grilled Langford, who had hired Tampa, Fla.-based Holland & Knight without either the approval or knowledge of the council. Holland & Knight lawyers, who were hired in mid-January to represent the city, have been sitting in on interviews conducted by federal agents with city employees. Councilman Lee Morris, a lawyer, noted the possible conflict of interest for Holland & Knight in representing both the city and its employees, and questioned the necessity of outside counsel. “The City of Atlanta is not a target of any investigation. If anything, it’s a possible victim,” Morris said. It was only in recent weeks, after FBI agents requested interviews with four council members, that the council learned of Langford’s hiring of the outside lawyers. Ever since, Langford has found herself under fire. At Monday’s meeting, council members questioned her authority to hire outside counsel without authorization and demanded copies of the retainer agreement and the legal bills. They wanted to know why Langford had kept the matter under wraps. Some council members insisted that it was a bad decision, and that Holland & Knight’s involvement creates potential conflicts of interest and could impede the federal probe. Councilwoman Julia Emmons said Langford’s acting without the council’s approval was disturbing. “There really is no oversight to this,” Emmons said. Langford, said Morris, had no authority to spend the money to hire the outside firm. “We are the clients,” Morris insisted, adding that clients don’t give lawyers free rein to spend client money. So far, Holland & Knight has been paid $25,346 and has submitted another $129,948 in bills, according to information given to the council Monday. Langford maintained that she had the authority to hire Holland & Knight and that it was proper, given her office’s lack of expertise in criminal matters. “I stand behind the decision that the city needed to be represented based on what had occurred up to then,” she said, adding that she hadn’t told the council because there were “provisions that prevented me from having a full and free discussion.” Those restraints were not of her doing, but were imposed on her by third parties, she said. She said she could explain further in executive session. Morris wanted to know what Holland & Knight would do in the likely situation where employees have conflicts of interest with each other and with the city. Langford admitted that such conflicts were possible. Should a conflict of interest be identified, she said, the lawyers would not represent conflicting parties. “Fortunately,” she added, “we haven’t been in that situation.” Holland & Knight, she said, is representing the city. If individual employees are represented, she added, they are only represented in their role as city employees. The solution, she insisted, was not to leave employees and the city unrepresented. “The better response is what we have done to date.” Morris wasn’t convinced. Were an employee to admit helping another employee or city official defraud the city, Holland & Knight would be facing a real conflict of interest, “with respect to even hearing from this employee,” he said. “You and I disagree,” he told Langford. University of Georgia Professor L. Ray Patterson, a legal ethics expert, says the difficulty for lawyers in that situation involves keeping clients’ confidences. “If a lawyer represents the city as well as an employee, the lawyer would be free to inform the city of any information that employee provided,” such as information about the misconduct of supervisors, Patterson says. An employee, he says, should have separate counsel. Messages left for three partners at Holland & Knight’s Atlanta office were not returned. The firm’s Web site lists numerous lawyers with expertise in white-collar criminal defense work, but none in the Atlanta office. Morris said Langford and Holland & Knight lawyers advised him not to speak with federal agents without counsel being present. It’s one thing for a lawyer to turn down that advice, he said, but an entirely different matter for nonlawyer employees to do so. “They’re either required [to have the lawyers present] or the advice they’re given amounts to a requirement,” he said. Morris said it was bad public policy to spend taxpayer money at one level to restrict another governmental agency’s access. He added that it could prolong the federal investigation. “We would all be better served to let those people do their jobs.” Langford said employees are not required to have Holland & Knight represent them, but admitted she was requiring the U.S. Attorney’s office to go through her office in order to talk with city employees. That, she said, was proper since the city was involved. Council President Robb Pitts said when federal agents asked to interview him as a witness on procedural matters, he refused to let Holland & Knight lawyers represent him. To do so, Pitts told Langford, “would say I agree with the fact you had the right to hire them.” But another council member, Cathy Woolard, said she felt she needed to accept the legal help for her interview with federal authorities. Not being trained as a lawyer, Woolard said, “I am reliant either on the kindness of strangers or the advice of the city attorney.” But she said she was concerned about where any information she might supply would go. Finally, she added, “We have a lot of discussion to do about the appropriate role of the City Attorney’s Office.”

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