Gov. Brian Kemp has made roughly 80 appointments to state boards and criminal justice posts since taking office in January. Of those selected, about one-half of them are women, and about a quarter are minorities.(ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kemp taps 2 new members to powerful Regents board after shakeup 

Longtime Regent Don Leebern is out

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed two new members to the powerful Georgia Board of Regents on Tuesday after he used a technical error that Nathan Deal made in his last days as governor to force the vacancies, leading to more control over the state's higher education system.

Kemp used the openings to appoint Sam Holmes, a commercial real estate executive with CBRE; and Jose Perez, the retired head of Target Market Trends and a Gwinnett Republican. He also re-appointed Dean Alford, a veteran regents member with ties to the state’s GOP establishment.

They replace Richard Tucker and Don Leebern Jr., who have been mainstays on the board, which oversees 26 institutions including Georgia’s largest colleges and universities and is considered one of the most coveted posts in state government. The 12-month total budget for the University System of Georgia, about $9.6 billion, is about one-third the size of the entire state budget.

The appointees will serve seven-year terms. 

Leebern, a Columbus liquor magnate and wealthy benefactor, was the board’s second-longest-serving member in state history, and he’s been involved in every major decision involving the college system — particularly those involving his alma mater, the University of Georgia. He was first appointed to the board in 1991.

Regent Donald M. Leebern, Jr.. during a 2016 Georgia Board of Regents meeting in this AJC file photo. 
Photo: BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

He also played a central part in the legendary feuds in the early 2000s over finances at UGA, siding with then-UGA president Michael Adams over Vince Dooley, who at the time was the school’s long-serving athletics director.

Kemp is a de facto member of Dooley’s family, vacationing with the Dooleys as a child and later rooming with the coach’s son, Daniel, in college. They remain close,  and Kemp supported the May decision to rename the playing field at Sanford Stadium in Dooley’s honor. 

‘Submit’

The governor also made several other appointments to boards, including a decision to tap Kent Fountain, the chief executive of Southeastern Gin & Peanut, to a sought-after post on the Ports Authority board. 

The shake-up came after Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan asserted earlier this year that 64 board appointments made by Deal were not properly submitted, a maneuver that reflected a new power dynamic at the state Capitol.

State law requires the Senate to approve a governor’s appointments to boards, commissions and bureaus — a vote that’s typically approved with little debate or controversy.

When appointments are made in between legislative sessions, the law mandates that the governor must “submit” to the Senate a list of the names. Deal’s office sent that list to Duncan on Jan. 14, the day the lieutenant governor was sworn into office.

In a memo, Duncan attorney Regina Quick said the list wasn’t properly submitted because it was sent to the lieutenant governor before he took the oath of office.

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Power play: Duncan seeks to nix dozens of Deal’s lame-duck appointments

Instead, she wrote, the list should have gone to the secretary of the state Senate, who is the de facto leader of the chamber before a presiding officer is sworn in.

Kemp’s new list of appointments excluded Deal’s lame-duck picks as regents. Some saw it as a message that Kemp is frustrated with the way the higher education system operates, though his allies insisted there’s no motive behind the move.

Both the new appointees are contributors to Kemp’s campaign and are active in civic circles. 

Holmes is one of the most powerful executives in Atlanta’s commercial real estate industry and a chairman emeritus of the UGA Foundation. Perez, who lost a bid for a Gwinnett County commission seat in 2010, is a member of the state charter school commission.  

‘Chief defender’

Leebern, 81, has been a controversial and dominating figure on the regents for decades and student groups and other critics have called for his ouster over the years.

He was first appointed to the board in 1991 by Gov. Zell Miller, who tutored Leebern while he was a football player at UGA in the 1950s. He remained a regent as Republicans swept to power in Georgia, winning support from both Deal and Sonny Perdue.

University of Georgia students walk on the Baldwin Street Steps on campus between classes.
Photo: FILE

In “Behind the Hedges,” a 2011 book recounting the struggle , journalist Rich Whitt wrote that Leebern pushed for Michael Adams’ UGA presidency “and was his chief defender each time Adams stubbed his toe.” In return, Whitt wrote, Leebern was given wide latitude to weather controversies that threatened his post.

Among them was scrutiny for distributing a wine bearing the UGA logo in violation of regents policy and, against NCAA regulations, financing a posh weekend in New York for former members of the UGA gymnastics squad in 2004.

In an interview in February, Leebern said he was at ease with Kemp’s decision.

“I don’t really have an issue with that,” Leebern said. “Whatever he wishes to do, I will understand.”

Telephone calls seeking comment from Leebern and Tucker weren’t immediately returned Tuesday afternoon. 

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