Mystery funder behind Paulding airline battle

Two residents who have filed legal challenges to the commercialization of Paulding County’s airport testified that they are not paying for their attorneys and do not know who is.

County officials have long contended Delta Air Lines is funding the lawsuits, though they have presented no evidence of it. They argue the residents don’t have the money to pay for their high-priced lawyers and the sophisticated, multi-pronged legal challenges that has already delayed the airport commercialization by a year.

Paulding resident and plaintiff Sue Wilkins said in a recent deposition that she got an anonymous phone call directing her to an attorney, Charles McKnight, who would work at no cost to her or other residents who oppose the plan.

Fellow plaintiff and Paulding resident Anthony Avery said in his deposition he did not question who was paying, because he had prayed about the matter and “figured the Lord was behind it.”

Delta has made clear since the day Paulding County announced its plan to commercialize its small airport that it opposes the idea. CEO Richard Anderson said after the announcement that, with the city of Atlanta, “we will work together to oppose any investment in that facility.”

The city owns Hartsfield-Jackson International and, like Delta, which has its biggest hub there, does not want to see any new airline operation that could grow into a rival for passengers or resources.

Delta declined to comment Wednesday on whether it is bankrolling any legal work, and McKnight would not say who’s paying the bills.

Paulding officials, working with entrepreneur Brett Smith, had planned to announce limited airline service last year. But the residents group, citing noise, congestion and environmental concerns, has sought to block federal certification of Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport to allow such operations.

To settle one challenge, the airport authority in December agreed to conduct an environmental assessment related to necessary modifications. That has taken months longer than originally planned, in part because attorneys for the residents raised issues with the contractor and the scope of the assessment.

On Wednesday, the airport authority approved a contract for the environmental assessment with Michael Baker Corp., a firm that also does engineering work for the airport. The study is now expected to cost$300,000, mostly paid with federal funding, and take six to nine months.

Paulding airport director Blake Swafford said the county and airport authority have spent about $150,000 on legal fees. In the lawsuits, residents also have challenged the use of county funds and raised concerns about secrecy.

Dallas Mayor and authority member Boyd Austin said the secrecy issue cuts both ways. He called funding of the opponents’ legal fight “very vague,” adding: “If there’s a question about openness and honesty, then they should be as open and honest as they want anybody else to be.”

Wilkins responded, “We are not government and don’t have to be transparent. And besides we did disclose what we know.”

An airport authority attorney quizzed Wilkins and Avery on their funding source during a deposition last month in one case. Wilkins said the anonymous call referring her to McKnight came shortly after she told a radio interviewer she couldn’t afford legal help to fight the airport plan and asked for any lawyers interested in pro bono work to call her.

“I do not know who the person was that made the recommendation,” Wilkins said in the deposition. “I was told … that I would not have to pay, here’s a name, here’s a number, give him a call and speak with him.”

She said McKnight, now a partner at Taylor English Duma, later recommended firms to work on other aspects of the legal fight, and she has not had to pay for the litigation. They include heavy hitters King & Spalding and Sidley Austin.

Avery said in his deposition he did not care who was paying because “I’d just been praying about it all and asking the Lord to give us [an attorney from outside the county.]”

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