U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak speaks to members of the press outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Federal prosecutors have charged Jeff Jafari, a former executive vice president of PRAD Group, on charges of bribery, witness tampering and tax evasion in the latest twist in the ongoing Atlanta City Hall corruption scandal. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: In Senate debate over an airport takeover, watch the amendments

There was no question that the other shoe existed. It was just a matter of when it would drop. And for the city of Atlanta, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Late this morning, the state Senate is expected to take up Senate Bill 131, a measure to authorize the state of Georgia to seize control of city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest and the state’s foremost driver of economic development.

Much of the debate will be drawn from this article in today’s AJC:

A longtime city of Atlanta contractor, whose company has received millions of dollars in work at the Atlanta airport and for the city’s Watershed Department, was charged in a 51-count federal indictment Wednesday that accused him of bribery, money laundering, tax evasion and tampering with a witness.

The indictment of the politically-connected Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari spells out the latest charges filed in the Department of Justice’s three-year investigation of Atlanta City Hall corruption, and officially names him as the person who allegedly paid bribes to the city’s former chief purchasing officer, Adam Smith.

Jafari was a longtime contractor with the city of Atlanta and a major campaign contributor to various city politicians. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and city council members returned tens of thousands in campaign contributions after a raid at the PRAD Group’s offices in September 2017.

A few points:

-- Smith was arrested in early 2017. Jafari left PRAD after the FBI raid on that company’s offices that September. So the indictment isn’t a surprise.

-- The indictment was announced by U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak, a former Republican state legislator. He said the timing was not related to today’s Crossover Day debate in the state Senate.

-- The PRAD Group is an architectural, design, and construction management and services firm headquartered in Atlanta that has done business with the city dating back to 1984. Our AJC colleague Kelly Yamanouchi tells us that the PRAD Group was part of a joint venture that competed in 2016 for an airport contract. Documents related to the bidding of that subpoena were the topic of a federal subpoena that year, but the contract was awarded to a different company.

All of the above is likely to be aired out in debate over SB 131, authored by Burt Jones, R-Jackson.

“That’s going to spark conversation. That’s the heart of the issue Senator Jones has been driving at over the last year and a half,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton said late Wednesday, in a Crossover Day preview session with reporters. Dugan said he has received no advice or counsel from Gov. Brian Kemp on the merits of the airport bill.

In an interview last week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the bill amounted to a unilateral declaration of war that would rupture the city’s relationship with the state Capitol. State Sen. John Kennedy of Macon, the Senate Republican caucus chairman, disagreed with the mayor’s sentiments.

“That’s certainly not a fair characterization of the motives or intent. That’s not a fair characterization on the approach,” Kennedy said. “Our issue is really not with the city. It’s really with contract procurement. It is a systemic problem that seems to derive from the model more than it does the people.”

SB 131 will be subject to amendments. In committee, state Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, noted the bill doesn’t address compensation for the city of Atlanta, should the state take control of Hartsfield-Jackson.

Kennedy said he didn’t think that argument likely to persuade a majority of senators. “When you’re talking about governmental property, whether it’s municipal county or state, the objective here is not ownership. It’s a change in management structure. It almost doesn’t matter who holds the deed to it,” he said.

In that Senate Transportation Committee meeting, which advanced SB 131 last week, Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said that if corruption was the reason for taking control of Hartsfield-Jackson, Jones’ bill needed to have tougher provisions aimed at state players who might be tempted.

“I think we need to add more meat to it, not only to avoid corruption, but just to say that it’s flat-out not allowed,” he said. “If you’re going to sit on these boards, and are going to make decisions affecting taxpayer operations, you cannot benefit financially. Ever. Not only for any member, but any immediate family member.”

Gooch didn’t follow up that thought in committee. But someone might today.

***

Also in that preview session with reporters, Senate Majority Mike Dugan said SB 150, a Democratic measure that would have prohibited those convicted of family violence from owning firearms, would not make it to the floor today, the deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber. The Senate Judiciary Committee this week gave the bill a unanimous endorsement.

Dugan also described SB 173, the “not-a-voucher” bill that would have given state cash to public school students who want to attend private schools, as what might be called mostly dead.

“Language will come up in other bills that will address facets of it, that the entire body can get behind,” Dugan said. “But the entire bill itself, I don’t think will be back.”

***

Pay attention to an uncertain debate to be settled tonight in the House: the fight over abortion legislation. 

First, let’s set the stage. Gov. Brian Kemp has vowed to pass the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions during last year’s campaign, and enters office owing a debt to conservatives who got him there.

An ally, state Rep. Ed Setzler, has filed a measure to ban abortion as soon as a doctor can detect it - as soon as six weeks. Kemp, meanwhile, publicly has backed a separate measure for a “trigger bill” that would restrict abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court outlaws it. 

His measure was seen as a way to sidestep a thornier abortion debate, one that would energize his core supporters but also guarantee a lengthy legal fight and risk alienating suburban women.

That was until a House committee meeting that stretched hours on Wednesday. Our AJC colleague Maya Prabhu was there, and reported that Setzler’s bill was approved - and Kemp’s favored measure tabled. 

So what happens now? Kemp also supports the “heartbeat” bill - one of his House deputies was the second signature on it - and he might move aggressively to embrace it. Members of the committee were said to have received a flurry of texts from Kemp’s team urging them to pass the bill. 

Democrats are rallying against it, promising a drawn-out legal battle if it passes -- much like the backlash over a similar law in Iowa that was declared unconstitutional

And some are passing out hangers to Republican lawmakers, an infamous symbol of self-induced abortion that they warn these new restrictions will force women to take.

The biggest question, though, may be whether House Speaker David Ralston wants to bring it to a vote. 

After a wave of Republican defeats in Atlanta’s suburbs last year, he talked of wanting to do more to insulate vulnerable House GOP incumbents. This vote could test that promise.

***

So you know that Democratic leaders of the U.S. House Oversight Committee, who have subpoena power, are requesting documents from Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger about alleged voting irregularities in the state during the 2018 election.

Two items on the committee shopping list stand out:

-- “All documents related to the allegation by the Georgia’s Secretary of State’s Office on November 3, 2018, that there had been a failed attempt to hack the state’s voter registration system, and that the Secretary of State’s Office had opened an investigation into the Democratic Party of Georgia.”

The above is a topic that both Kemp and Raffensperger have refused to address in the four months since. The GBI and FBI were allegedly activated to investigate, but state Democratic party officials say they’ve never been contacted.

-- “In addition, a recent report found an unusually high number of “undervotes” for Lieutenant Governor among African American voters in the 2018 election.”

This is another area that Republican election officials have refused to explore. In the race for governor, 3,939,328 voters cast a ballot. But in the No. 2 race for lieutenant governor, 159,024 of those voters – about 4 percent — dropped away.

Then, in the next race down, 103,290 of those supposedly lost voters suddenly regained their interest and voted in the secretary of state contest. It is an anomaly never before seen in the modern electoral history in Georgia.

***

John Garst of Rosetta Stone Communications, the only outfit publicly polling the Gwinnett County referendum on MARTA, says the issue is on the ropes. From the press release:

The March 19th MARTA referendum in Gwinnett County is now trailing among likely voters by a margin of 12%. The opposition in Gwinnett has broken the 50% mark for the first time and the measure is currently failing by a margin of (39%-51.4%).

The margin is a result of a collapse in support by voters over the age of 40 and those who identify as Republican or Independent voters. The survey was conducted on the evening of March 5 and sampled 1,000 Gwinnett County voters on landline telephones and mobile phones. The survey has a margin of error of 3.1% and a confidence level of 95. It was conducted exclusively for Channel 2 Action News in Atlanta.

“The referendum is not dead – but it is on life support,” John Garst, president of Rosetta Stone Communications said. “As of right now 91% of early voters in Gwinnett are over the age of 40 and 51% of voters are over the age of 65.”

***

Some of the nation’s top Republicans are headed to Sea Island this weekend for a private gathering of political and business leaders sponsored by the right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute. Bloomberg News reports that Vice President Mike Pence will arrive at the AEI World Forum on Friday, while Trump adviser and son in law Jared Kushner will speak and participate in a Q&A session on Thursday. 

Also reportedly headed to the Georgia coast: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue and a bevy of other Republican lawmakers and Cabinet members.

*** 

Speaking of David Perdue, Politico has a profile of the first-term U.S. senator and his relationship with Trump ahead of his re-election run. A key quote from the Republican: "The ethos in Georgia is still there that elected Donald Trump. Don’t let anybody kid you about that."

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