Whistleblower: Poor legal work costs taxpayers millions

by: Richard Belcher Updated:

Holly Smith said her year as an attorney representing the city of Atlanta revealed that plaintiffs are winning settlements they should not win because of lousy work by lawyers for City Hall.

ATLANTA - A former lawyer for the city of Atlanta filed suit this week accusing the city of firing her because she complained about incompetence and even legal malpractice by lawyers for the city.

The city denies the charges, but Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Richard Belcher said the whistleblower contends poor legal work is costing taxpayers a lot of money.

The city tried and failed Friday to convince a judge to keep the public from seeing some of Holly Smith's allegations.

Smith told Belcher her year as an attorney representing the city of Atlanta revealed that plaintiffs are winning settlements they should not win because of lousy work by lawyers for City Hall.

The city said Smith should have dropped her complaints without going public.

"Gross mismanagement and actual malpractice," are words from the lawsuit Smith filed against the city of Atlanta this week. The lawsuit claimed that she was fired for blowing the whistle on costly flaws in the work of lawyers representing the city of Atlanta.

"She raised it consistently through the chain of command," said Paul Smith, Holly Smith's husband, who is also an attorney. "She was told don't worry about it or do this or do that. When it became too much, they fired her."

Smith worked for the state Attorney General's Office before going to the city's law department where she contends the work was so sloppy she made her first complaint 11 days after she started.

"Very minimal discovery was being done and in a number of cases plaintiffs had not even been deposed. No witnesses to my knowledge in any case were ever deposed," Smith said.

"There was no merit to her claims," said Lesli Dent, a private attorney representing the city.

Dent refereed Belcher to an investigation of Smith's claims conducted by a private law firm last spring. Most of the report is heavily redacted but the conclusion is there.

"What the report concluded was there had been no wrongdoing, no incompetence, no malpractice and indeed, all that was at issue here were differences in legal strategy and judgment," Dent said.

Smith handled complaints against the Department of Watershed Management. Cases she worked on against the agency included suits blaming the city for flooded homes or businesses.

A Grant Park homeowner was of particular concern. Right before the trial, Smith said the legal department approved the installation of a catch basin to control flooding on the property.

"But installing that gives the impression that we knew there was a problem. We didn't fix it until right before we were going to trial, which leads any jury to believe that we knew that we were wrong," Smith said.

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"Do you think that hurt?" Belcher asked.

"Oh yeah, absolutely. It was a death knell to the case," replied Smith.

Dent declined comment on the Grant Park case. She told Belcher that it would reveal privileged conversations. The city paid $164,000 to settle the case.

Since the end of 2007, the city has paid more than $10.5 million for the kind of cases Smith said the law department routinely mishandles.

By comparison the Atlanta Police department paid out $10.4 million over the same period and that includes nearly $5 million paid to the family of a woman killed in a botched drug raid.

"Do you believe you were fired because you complained about what you saw as incompetence and laziness and malpractice?" Belcher asked Smith.

"I was told I was," Smith said.

"Is it costing the city a lot?" asked Belcher.

"Oh, yes," Smith said. "She can express that opinion to lawyers within the City Law Department, which she did, and expect that it will be investigated as it was."

Late Thursday, the city asked a Fulton County judge for an emergency hearing to give the city an opportunity to ask the judge to seal parts of Smith's suit.

The city argued that Belcher's story would draw attention to public information in the suit. The city got its hearing, but the judge refused to seal Smith's allegations.