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Georgia Senate pays law firm $80,000, refuses to say why

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The state Senate paid an Atlanta law firm $80,500 on July 28, and Senate leaders will only say the money was for a "personnel issue."

But a top Democratic senator, Vincent Fort of Atlanta, said it was to settle a racial discrimination claim brought by a Senate staffer who is African-American. Channel 2 Action News reported Tuesday that all parties signed an agreement keeping details confidential, although Fort and a leader of the Tea Party Patriots said the public should be told details of the case.

The check was made to the law firm Buckley & Klein after the Senate Committee on Administrative Affairs met in July and approved the payment. The committee, made up of five Republican senators, the Republican lieutenant governor, one Democrat and the secretary of the Senate, meets in private and is chaired by President Pro Tem Tommie Williams. Williams, in a statement, said the Senate is not subject to state sunshine laws and that "the matter related is a personnel matter and we do not release personnel information."

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, the lone Democrat on the committee, also refused to comment. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle referred all questions to Williams.

The staffer in the claim -- a secretary -- was reached at home by Channel 2 Action News, but she referred questions to her attorney at Buckley & Klein, Dena G. George, who also refused to comment.

Fort refused to name the secretary, whom he hasn't spoken to since the settlement.

"Around the Capitol, it was common knowledge that this person was treated unfairly, that there was some kind of discrimination involved, perpetrated by members of the Senate," Fort said.

The secrecy of the settlement is wrong, Fort said. To protect the secretary, he would not reveal details of the case.

"This settlement was reached with taxpayer money," Fort said. "I'm very concerned this is shrouded in secrecy. The people have the right to know what their taxpayer money is being used for, what their taxpayer money is being used to cover for."

Debbie Dooley, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots and co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, agreed.

"If it is taxpayer money, then the purpose should be public and accounted for," she said, adding that if a state employee was the one who discriminated against the secretary, "the employee should be fired."