ATLANTA — A joint investigation from Channel 2 Action News and our investigative partners at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and AJC.com exposed a secret six-figure settlement in exchange for silence.
At the center of the deal: former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and fired Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport General Manager Miguel Southwell.
After Reed abruptly fired the world’s busiest airport’s GM in 2016, the two powerful leaders had an epic, very public falling out. Each accused the other of illegal activity.
The most striking claim was that Reed and other city officials working at his direction tried to manipulate airport contracts.
Reed hit back.
“I want to be real clear. If he continued down this path, I’m going to make public why he was fired. And he knows, that not only could I have fired him, I could have pressed charges against him if I had chosen to do so. You understand me?” Reed said at the time.
But a few months later, they suddenly made up and took it all back.
Three months later, at the same time Reed’s national political profile was on the rise, he and Southwell released a joint statement absolving the other of any wrongdoing and declaring their dispute as over.
“This is absolutely bizarre,” said Clark Cunningham, with Georgia State University Law School.
Cunningham said he was deeply troubled when Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Aaron Diamant showed him the secret six-figure settlement Reed reached with Southwell days before the two made up.
“It seems to me that this document was created to deceive,” Cunningham said.
Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered the undisclosed document among millions the city turned over to federal prosecutors in response to grand jury subpoenas issued in the sweeping corruption probe into Atlanta City Hall under Reed.
“It looks to me like there’s some kind of backdoor deal to give him severance pay, while at the same time, giving Reed deniability,” Cunningham said.
The deal that included a confidentiality clause and signed only by lawyers representing Southwell and the city agreed Southwell shall be paid $147,000 in eight equal monthly installments.
It didn’t disclose the payouts source. The only terms the public ever saw were in a city council resolution that approved more than $85,000 taxpayer dollars, supposedly a full and final settlement for Southwell’s health care and career counseling costs.
“We thought it was over,” said Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore.
But now, Moore believes the body was misled.
“This shouldn’t have been done undercover. Period. Point blank. It shouldn’t have. It should have been done so that people knew exactly what was taking place,” Moore said.
A spokesperson for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the city has no record of the city paying Southwell anything other than the $85,000.
Cunningham said he believes her and he thinks Reed likely rallied a private donor or donors to cover the other $147,000 payout.
“Is there some kind of benefit or promise being made to them? Are they going to be thrown city business or something like that? It’s very suspicious,” Cunningham said.
In a statement to Channel 2 Action News, Reed declined to comment on what he called "a confidential personnel matter."
Reed called our report “a manufactured controversy.” He also said, “unfortunately we have reached a point where other people’s lives are merely fodder for clicks and news feeds.”
After spending months reporting this story, we got an email from Southwell’s attorney:
“The manner in which the settlement agreement was memorialized was dictated by the attorney for the city and Mayor Reed. While we asserted a whistleblower claim, the case was settled without a release per their request. The mayor and the city will have to speak to their motivations.”
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