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A little sleazy in The Big Easy 

Former city attorney stuck Atlanta with trips to New Orleans

When Atlantans fork over their tax checks, they expect that the money going to government employees will be paying for work those employees are actually doing in Atlanta.

But according to former City Attorney Susan Pease Langford, where you're working doesn't matter so much as long as you're working for John Q. Public.

During the past several months, including time she spent as Atlanta's top attorney, Langford has quietly served on a board in New Orleans that will help decide who gets to operate that city's water system -- a battle similar to the one she got to watch in Atlanta during the late 1990s.

Langford was named to the 12-member Special Evaluation Committee by New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial and serves as a volunteer choosing between United Water, which runs Atlanta's system, U.S. Filter and a group made up of current employees.

Obvious concerns about a potential for conflicts of interest with United Water aside, Langford charged the city with trips to New Orleans as well as her accommodations in The Big Easy. While she was being paid by Atlanta, she was working for another city and paying for her trips back and forth on Atlanta plastic.

Langford used her government credit card to purchase two roundtrip tickets to New Orleans Oct. 4 and Oct. 11 for $346 and $393, respectively. She also booked nights at the Hotel Inter-Continental ($221.47) and the Queen & Crescent Hotel ($118.18). The total cost: $1,078.65.

Compared with other stories of City Hall graft, a thousand bucks barely registers on the radar screen, but it raises the question of whether there are other such expenditures and if anyone was paying attention to what top officials were buying. It also highlights the greatest weakness of the previous Atlanta regime -- the public trust just wasn't taken seriously by the people who held it.

Langford currently works for Peck, Shaffer & Williams.

Jerry G. Peterson, the managing partner for the Atlanta office, told the Fulton County Daily Report in March that he considered the current federal corruption investigation before hiring Langford.

"We just had no sense that she had any involvement in anything that was untoward," Peterson said.

It could be argued, however, that Langford violated Rule 8.4 of the State Bar of Georgia's Rules of Professional Conduct, which states that a violation exists if an attorney engages "in professional conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation."

One thing's for sure -- she doesn't think it's a big deal.

"I was comfortable with doing it the way I did it or I wouldn't have done it that way," she says.

It doesn't matter whether the public you're serving is in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles or New Orleans, Langford explained, as long as it's public service, then the expense is justified.

Of course, that explanation has some holes. It's doubtful, for example, that Atlanta taxpayers would be real happy if they paid for a new Peachtree Street only to have it constructed in, say, Chicago.

But that doesn't stop Langford from asserting the most time-honored of explanations for employees being a bit too liberal with the expense account -- the city owed it to her.

"I worked all hours of the day and night," she says. "There wasn't a week that went by that I didn't put in 60 hours or 70 hours per week, and it's not like you can put in overtime slips."

The city got more from her, she argues, than she could have ever gotten from the city in terms of money. She was indignant that her judgment concerning the trips was even being questioned.

Langford says criticizing her decision to stick Atlanta with more than $1,000 in travel expenses for work she wasn't doing for the city would discourage people from seeking government jobs.

"Don't make public service a bad thing," Langford cautions.

Langford's trips raise the question of whether anyone was paying attention to the way city officials were spending money. Mayor Shirley Franklin's transition team wasn't even aware that there was such a thing as city credit cards.

Upon arriving in office, Franklin ordered the round-up of city vehicles and cellular phones. No one was exactly sure how many cars the city owned and if there were any rules governing cell phone use.

Then "someone said, 'What about credit cards?'" says Peggy McCormick, who led the phone and car round-ups. "We said, 'What credit cards?'"

During Campbell's first term, only the mayor held a city credit card, but during his second administration, cards were given out to the chief operating and financial officers, the city attorney and Jibari Simama, who heads up the cyber center program. The cards were quickly accounted for, and Franklin is the only city official with one now, McCormick says, and there are no plans to audit any of the expenditures.

In theory, there shouldn't be a need for an audit, because all the purchases should have already been approved.

In Langford's case, though, no one had oversight. She approved trips and training for lawyers in her office, so "Susan approved herself going," says acting City Attorney Rosalind Rubens Newell.

Langford rose to local prominence as the city's director of Olympic coordination, and during Campbell's first administration became interim director of the Contract Compliance Office. In July 1998, she became the city attorney, a job that paid her $150,984 per year.

Evidently, she thought she deserved more.

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