A plane sits at Paulding County Airport in Dallas which officials have tried to expand for commercial air service, much to the chagrin of Delta and the city of Atlanta. Credit Hyosub Shin HSHIN@AJC.COM

Paulding airport commercialization opponents need not reveal backers

Opponents of the commercialization of Paulding County’s airport do not have to reveal who is financially backing their effort, the Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled.

Some have speculated that  Delta Air Lines is secretly funding the grassroots organization of residents fighting the project.

The developer behind the Paulding airport expansion, Silver Comet Terminal Partners, wants to determine whether a resolution to withdraw support for commercialization. approved by county commissioners, was really drafted by Delta.

“It’s Delta who’s behind all of this. They are the man behind the curtain who’ve been pulling the strings,” said attorney Tony Cochran, representing Silver Comet, earlier this year.

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The effort to commercialize was halted earlier this year by the Federal Aviation Administration, but the airport authority and county could reapply. Recent primary and runoff elections will bring in new county commissioners next year who will replace most of the current commissioners opposed to airline arrivals in Paulding.

Atlanta-based Delta has made no secret that it opposes the idea of a commercial airport in Paulding that would compete against the airline’s hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

But the airline has never admitted to providing financial backing for the opposition and argued in a friend of the court brief filed in the case that it has the right to anonymity.

In a unanimous ruling Monday, the appellate court panel reversed a decision by a Paulding County Superior Court judge that representatives of the grassroots group must testify about their source of funding.

The court of appeals said that “the information requested is not relevant to the underlying dispute,” which revolved around a breach of contract claim and attorneys fees.

The court’s ruling does not settle the broader legal question of whether 501(c)4 organizations can be forced to disclose their sources of funding in Georgia court cases.

Still, it’s a victory for attorneys for the grassroots organization called The Committee to Protect Paulding County, which argued that it doesn’t matter who is funding their effort to oppose the airport commercialization.

The Committee to Protect Paulding County, a 501(c)4 nonprofit advocacy group run by Republican consultant Chip Lake, argued the group is entitled to anonymous political speech under the First Amendment. Lake maintained the identity of donors to the group is privileged and refused to answer questions about his organization’s members and contributors.

Delta said it “believes the correct ruling was made. We weighed in on the appeal to defend our own right and the right of any other Georgia citizen under the First Amendment to engage in protected political activity without fear of harassment by litigants like Silver Comet in private litigation.”

Silver Comet had argued that the truth of who is behind the opposition is crucial.

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