We have an interesting kerfuffle underway at the state Capitol. That’s the word first used to describe it to me. Kerfuffle.
It will take some explaining.
The first thing you have to understand is that Anne Lewis, a partner in the law firm of Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP, has been involved with GOP redistricting matters for many years.
It is one of the reasons she was named general counsel to the Georgia Republican party, replacing Randy Evans.
The second thing you have to understand is that Lewis, general counsel to the state GOP, was hired this summer by the General Assembly in toto to oversee the legal aspects of the special August session of the Legislature, which was dedicated to redrawing the political boundaries for the state House districts, the state Senate districts, and 14 congressional districts.
Now, this did not mean she was everyone’s lawyer. When House Democratic Leader Stacy Abrams questioned Lewis about redistricting details, the General Assembly’s attorney explained that she couldn’t speak to Abrams, who herself is a lawyer. In part, from Lewis’ letter:
Under the Rules and Regulations of the State Bar of Georgia, this representation is analogous to a corporation in which corporate counsel represents the entity as opposed to individual shareholders. To the extent shareholders have questions, those must be directed to the appropriate corporate officers who decide which questions to pose to corporate counsel. Those same rules apply here.
The third thing you have to understand about Lewis, general counsel to the state GOP and attorney for the General Assembly in toto, is that she is now also special counsel to Attorney General Sam Olens. The state has filed a lawsuit insisting that the lines drawn by the General Assembly be approved, and that the federal oversight mandated by the Voting Rights Act come to an end.
Despite that last demand, the maps were also submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for the required federal approval. And DOJ officials have begun contacting lawmakers who think the new maps should be rejected.
But in the last few days, Lewis, under the authority of the last of those three hats, has informed Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike that she is now, in fact, everyone’s lawyer.
And they may not speak with Justice Department officials without her presence.
The lawmakers who have been ordered into silence include members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who prefer their own legal representation, Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant. Who sent Olens a written objection.
The state of Georgia’s pursuit of an end to federal oversight of its election laws is antithetical to his clients’ interests, and poses a huge conflict of interest for any attorney who intends to represent both the state and the African-American lawmakers, Bondurant wrote in a letter that can be seen here. Another point:
There is also a very serious question whether representatives of your office may have violated Rule 3.4(a) by “unlawfully obstructing another party’s access to evidence” when they instructed [Abel Gomez, DOJ’s lead counsel] that neither he nor any other lawyers with DOJ, would be allowed to interview the African-American members of the General Assembly without the presence and participation of someone from the Georgia Attorney General’s office.
Republican lawmakers have also been included in the restriction.
State Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, was one of the few Republicans in the General Assembly who voted against the House map – which placed him in a district with state Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine.
Only a few weeks earlier, Hatfield and three other GOP lawmakers – Spencer among them – were handed “Off the Reservation” awards at a House GOP caucus dinner, for casting the fewest votes with the House leadership. There is some speculation that the two events are linked.
Updated on Friday: Spencer called said he had a conversation with DOJ investigators on Thursday, with Lewis listening in. Spencer says he a) told his interrogators that he felt intimidated by Lewis’ presence and b) reminded them that, six years ago, Lewis testified before Congress in favor of preservation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
This week, Hatfield said he had a “lively conversation” with Lewis on the matter of his future interviews with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Essentially, they are claiming that we are their clients in our official capacity as representatives. And that they are not agreeable to talk to the Justice Department without them being involved because we could say something that could be used against the state,” Hatfield said.
“I think what she’s doing is wrong. She’s trying to obstruct legislators access to speak to federal officials. It’s not just a matter of being a state representative. I’m a citizen and a taxpayer in this state. And I’ve got a right to contact a federal official in a federal agency about a matter of public concern just like any other taxpayer,” Hatfield said.
Like Bondurant, Hatfield – though he is a Republican — pointed to Lewis’ many hats. In particular, her position as general counsel to the state GOP.
“That’s a significant conflict when you’re general counsel for an organization that has as its agenda a desire to bring about a particular political result,” Hatfield said.
For now, Justice Department officials have told Hatfield and others that they will let the state of Georgia have its way – pointing to a tight deadline.
The Waycross lawmaker said he will not speak to Justice Department officials with Lewis on the line. Which may be just fine with many people in Atlanta.
Abrams, the House Democratic leader, said her members can’t afford to boycott the process, and so will allow Lewis and other state attorneys to listen in.
Late today, Olens released a letter addressed to Bondurant that explained the state’s position. It’s that darned parallel court case, the attorney general said. (If only it hadn’t been filed.)
Read Olen’s letter here. In part:
The pending interviews raise the specter of the DOJ interviewing Georgia officials, purporting to speak on behalf of the State of Georgia, without the State being given any knowledge whatsoever of the contents of those conversations and at a time when the State and the DOJ are opposing counsel in on-going litigation, which is the very subject of the interviews.
It is that situation which gave rise to the request to permit the State counsel to be present during the interviews. The State does not intend to participate in the questioning of witnesses and, in fact, for the interviews that have already been conducted, counsel for the State has not done so other than to clarify when it appeared that there was a misunderstanding of either a question or an answer.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider