Georgia Democrat questions legality of Cagle’s Delta threat

A Democratic candidate for governor asked the state's top law enforcement official Wednesday to investigate whether Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle violated state criminal and ethics laws for his threat to "kill" a lucrative tax break for Delta Air Lines unless it restored business ties with a national gun group.

Stacey Evans, a former state lawmaker, urged Attorney General Chris Carr to determine whether Cagle broke bribery and extortion laws for his stance, which came days after Delta ended a discount program for members of the National Rifle Association.

The move by Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor, effectively blocked the Senate from taking up a broader tax-cut bill that includes a jet fuel tax exemption that could save Delta about $40 million a year.

It is the last day for bills to move from one chamber to the other — that is, to cross over. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

Evans argued in the letter that he could have violated ethics laws that make it illegal for officials to offer “special favors or privileges” because he is a member of the NRA. And she said he could have run afoul of criminal penalties because the NRA could shower him with campaign cash for his stance.

“Mr. Cagle’s threats against a corporation that is one of Georgia’s largest private employers is a serious matter that demands a thorough investigation – and prosecution should a violation of law be found,” she wrote.

Cagle’s office declined comment. Carr, a Republican, did not immediately comment on the request.

Georgia Democrats have seized on the GOP threat to punish the Atlanta-based airline to appeal to moderate voters who may be turned off by the party’s courtship of the NRA.

Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, another Democratic candidate for governor, praised Delta’s decision to “reject NRA extremism that has prevented commonsense reform for too long.” And several down-ticket candidates, including Carr’s opponent Charlie Bailey, have condemned the stance.

“Not only is it completely understandable that Delta would seek to distance themselves from the NRA based on the NRA's insensitive response to the tragic shootings in Parkland, Florida, it is their constitutional right to do so,” said Bailey, a former prosecutor.

Several legal analysts said Cagle’s tweet does not necessarily break any laws but raises broader First Amendment questions.

“Urging negative action against a person or corporation based on their political views may in some ways infringe on First Amendment values, but it would not seem inappropriate in general for an elected official to speak about matters of public concern,” said Robert Schapiro, a professor at Emory University’s School of Law.

What further complicates the discussion, according to Schapiro, is that the Senate is not debating levying a tax on Delta for its political beliefs, but rather considering whether to restore a onetime benefit.

The Legislature is “not exactly taking adverse action. It’s discussing whether or not to grant tax exemptions, which is one thing that makes it more complicated,” he said.

Even if it’s not illegal, Sara Henderson, executive director of the Georgia branch of the good government group Common Cause, said the situation sheds light on how “officials will use their power to essentially punish those who don't agree with them.”

"The problem is that these officials go largely unnoticed by the general public who doesn't hold them accountable until something like this happens," she said. "Georgians should be paying attention to state and local government and let these officials know they are watching."

Evans, in her letter, said there’s little doubt that Cagle “threatened to use his elected office to impose retribution against Delta.”

“Whether we are Democrats or Republicans, we all love and want to protect our children,” she wrote. “Lt. Gov. Cagle’s threat showed an extreme lack of judgment and a willingness to sacrifice Georgia’s economic health for a personally ideology that is at odds with the feelings of most Georgians.”

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Read more recent AJC coverage on the Delta tax break:

On Delta, the NRA, and a troubling climate for an Amazon bid

White House sidesteps Georgia’s Delta-NRA fight 

Georgia Republicans send Delta tax break into tailspin

New York, Birmingham woo Delta headquarters amid NRA-tax break fight

Amid Delta/NRA fracas, a new gun bill makes a surprise appearance

Delta severs ties with NRA, risking lucrative state tax break

Suddenly, a trio of major headaches for Georgia’s governor