Disgraced Former Councilman, Willis, Seeks Land Bank Appointment
Mayor Kasim Reed recently appointed Willis to serve on the Atlanta Land Bank Authority, which acquires tax-foreclosed properties to turn over to developers or keep for long-term planning.
The appointment must be approved by City Council before taking effect.
Willis, a former attorney who served on the City Council for twelve years, lost his seat to Andre Dickens in 2013 after being disbarred for depositing 30,000 dollars from a personal injury settlement he litigated into his own bank account, when over half the money was meant for the injured child he represented.
At the time, Willis chalked up his decision to steal thousands of dollars from a minor to “tremendous personal challenges.”
Willis’s “personal challenges” date back at least to 2007, when the Secretary of State’s office investigated the Henry Lamar Willis Foundation, which purportedly supplied scholarships to Georgia students. The investigation revealed that tens of thousands of dollars regularly flowed between the foundation bank account, Willis’s personal account, and his campaign account, with over 40,000 staying in his personal account.
The investigation also confirmed reporting by the Atlanta Journal Constitution that exposed the fact that the foundation did not have tax exempt status, even as it collected donations under that pretense.
Atlanta Progressive News also revealed that Willis had thousands of dollars in unpaid liens during his time as a Council Member. The liens resulted from his failure to pay federal income taxes, property taxes, corporate taxes, garbage bills, and legal fines.
During his tenure on the City Council, Willis was fined repeatedly for failing to report campaign donations properly and on time.
But none of this came up at a June 09, 2015 meeting of the Community Development and Human Resources Committee, which approved the appointment, sending it to a full council vote.
“People said they expected fireworks at that meeting,” William Perry, director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog organization, told APN.
“This Mayor uses this office as a bully pulpit. He’s admitted that. Everybody down there [on the City Council] picks their battles,” Perry said.
In an appalling display, not only did every Council Member on the Committee, with the exception of Dickens, support the appointment; they veritably fawned over Willis as he sat before them.
Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (District 4), who is currently under investigation for a vrtiery of apparent ethics violations herself, talked at length about a jazz band performance in which Willis’s daughter played, gushing over the quality of the music, before abruptly making a motion to approve his appointment.
“I’m glad to see you here and glad that you are willing to serve. Although Councilman Dickens is doing a fine job I wish there were space for both of you here because your voice and presence are truly missed,” Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11), also a close ally of Mayor Reed who recently was appointed head of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, told Willis.
“Many people in your position would ride off into the sunset and make bags of money. But you have ardently, perhaps somewhat foolishly, decided to come back and fulfill your heart’s desire yet again and serve the public,” Michael Bond, who recently settled with Atlanta’s Ethics Office for various ethical violation, quipped before telling Willis that he looked happier and slimmer.
Dickens, who chairs the committee, was the only one to strike a different tone.
“Right now is a critical time with the Land Bank Authority, as you know, as all of us know. And the work that is being done there and that will be done there as it relates to affordable housing, to redevelop and make the future happen that we want to see in these areas, it’s going to be critical that we do that right,” he said.
“At this time I will not support the nomination. Just because of the same thoughts I had eighteen months ago that were expressed by myself and the public. It’s still, it’s been a short time for me,” Dickens concluded.
Then the committee voted 6-1 to approve the appointment of Lamar Willis to the Atlanta Land Bank Authority. Voting yea were Kwanza Hall (District 2), Ivory Young (District 3), Winslow, Bottoms, Joyce Sheperd (District 12), and Bond.
“I’m sure there’s an endgame to this appointment. What it is, I don’t know. But you can bet it will benefit Kasim Reed and his allies,” Perry said.
Perry does not support appointing “someone riddled with ethics violations. That’s not someone you put in a position of public trust, especially after the voters have rejected him. So you have to figure there is some advantage being gained.”
Better Georgia, a progressive advocacy organization, has circulated a petition calling on the mayor to withdraw Willis’s appointment. As of press time, 462 people had signed.
Common Cause Georgia is not tackling this issue directly, but Perry said he encourages members of the public to speak out.
“Public pressure is the one thing that can overcome fear of political consequence. I think at the end of the day if enough Council Members hear from their real constituents, actual people who are sickened by this appointment, it will make a difference,” Perry said.
The City Council will vote on the appointment at the Full Council Meeting on Monday, June 12, 2015.