MARIETTA, GA (CN)-A Georgia attorney claims he's being unfairly prevented from presenting a grand jury with evidence allegedly showing a county official broke the law while negotiating a deal to move the Braves baseball team from Atlanta to nearby Cobb County.
The Braves announced their intention to move Cobb County in November 2013, unveiling plans to build a 42,000-set, $617 million dollar stadium in an area near I-75 in Marietta, Ga. The new ballpark is expected to host its first Braves game at the start of the 2017 season.
But community groups and residents of Cobb County immediately raised questions about the deal between the county and Liberty Media, especially in regard to how much taxpayers would have to contribute to the construction of the new stadium.
In a Mandamus petition filed Cobb County Superior Court, attorney Gary Pelphrey asks District Attorney Vic Reynolds to "stand aside" and let him present evidence that will allegedly show Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee violated his oath of office and falsified records while negotiating, in secret, with Liberty Media, the corporate owner of the Braves, for the relocation of the team.
"Petitioner believes that Mr. Tim Lee, in his actions to secretly negotiate, seek approval and
financing for, and begin implementation of, the Atlanta Braves moving their baseball franchise
to Cobb County, has committed several criminal acts," Pelphrey says in his motion. "Petitioner comes forward to exercise both his right and his duty, as a citizen with such knowledge, to present his evidence to its sitting Grand Jury."
Commissioner Lee and other Cobb County officials said the county would contribute $300 million to build the stadium, and will pay another $35 million to cover the cost of 30 years of capital maintenance, but those numbers have risen without satisfactory explanation, the attorney says.
The County has since said it will issue up to $397 million in bonds for the construction of the stadium and its maintenance.
Pelphrey is an outspoken critic of the plan, which he says was drafted for the purpose of "enhancing the return on investment of a private enterprise with no connection, or sufficiently documentable benefit, to the county."
In June he filed a complaint against Lee with the Cobb County Board of Ethics, but the panel ruled Pelphrey's claim failed to meet the legal threshold to require a hearing on the allegations.
Afterwards, Lee dismissed Pelphrey's accusations as baseless.
The attorney contends Lee and other county officials had no authority to engage in secret negotiations with the Braves or to commit the taxpayer resources to the stadium plan without a public referendum on the matter.
He also charges that Lee agreed to make material changes to the memorandum of understanding between the county and the Braves owner that shift more of the burden of building the stadium taxpayers, and that he falsified records related to the MOU to carry out those changes.
"In response to an Open Records request, a November, 2013, email from Ms Michele Swami.
the CEO and General Manager of the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority, to the
members of her board showed that Commissioner Lee had agreed to adding an indemnifying
paragraph into the Intergovernmental Agreement paragraph of the Memorandum of
Understanding (MOU). The MOU is the roadmap for a complex series of additional agreements," Pelphrey says.
He continues: "After publication for public review, Chairman Lee agreed to a change presented by the
Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority (hereinafter, the Authority) in the
MOU which eviscerated any sharing of financial liability between the county and the
Authority in the Intergovernmental Agreement, and then, in his call for the vote before
the Board of Commissioners, intentionally indicated that the MOU had been changed, but
specifically stated that there were two changes, which he then enumerated, leaving out the
essential change to the Intergovernmental Agreements paragraph, which made
meaningless the subsequent Intergovernmental Agreement between the County and the
Authority, and which agreement was presented to the Bond Validation Court as
"security" for the bonds."
Pelphrey asserts "Chairman Lee was concerned enough about the change which he had not announced ... that he subsequently caused the official records of Cobb County to show the changed version, not only as part of the minutes, but also as the version in the recorded Agenda document, as if it had always had the Authority-indemnifying paragraph, an intentional falsification of official records."
Pelphrey says he has met with district attorney Reynolds on several occasions since April 2014 to discuss his allegations, but "[t]he District Attorney has fashioned himself as 'The Gatekeeper' of the grand jury and has steadfastly refused this petitioner's effort to go to the Grand Jury."
"Petitioner identified the foreman of the then-sitting Grand Jury for May/June, 2014, and left a
telephone message for him, identifying himself as a citizen and as an attorney. When the
foreman returned that call, he and petitioner chatted for a minute or two, about when the current
term would end. The District Attorney learned of this and criticized petitioner; he forbade any
further contact with the grand jury," the complaint says.
Pelphrey asked the court to issue a Writ of Mandamus directing the Reynolds arrange for the presentation of his evidence.
In a written statement, Reynolds responded to the suit and its allegations.
"I will not let the grand jury be used as a political sledgehammer because somebody disagreed with a policy decision or even was concerned with an ethical violation. That's not what the grand jury does," he says.
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