Paulding airport developer wants to know if Delta backs opposition

Planes are parked on the tarmac at Paulding’s general aviation airport. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Planes are parked on the tarmac at Paulding’s general aviation airport. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

A company seeking to develop a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta is trying to find out: Was a resolution approved by Paulding County commissioners to halt the commercialization of their tiny airport actually drafted by Delta Air Lines?

And is Atlanta-based Delta secretly funding a grassroots organization that organized residents and helped to elect commissioners to fight the airport commercialization?

If it is, does the airline have the right to remain anonymous?

Those questions are at the center of a case attorneys argued before Georgia’s Court of Appeals on Tuesday.

At stake is the question of whether people deserve to know who is backing local votes and political campaigns, or if those backers instead have the right to remain anonymous.

The company that wants to develop the second airport, Silver Comet Terminal Partners, says it wants to know if Delta is the force behind the residents and elected officials fighting the airport expansion.

“They keep saying they are a grassroots organization. They are AstroTurf, manufactured by Delta Air Lines in the corporate offices,” said attorney Tony Cochran representing Silver Comet. “It’s Delta who’s behind all of this. They are the man behind the curtain who’ve been pulling the strings.”

Silver Comet wants to require testimony on the matter in a lawsuit over the airport commercializaiton.

But attorneys for the grassroots organization called The Committee to Protect Paulding County, a 501(c)4 run by Republican consultant Chip Lake, say it doesn't matter who is funding their effort and who drafted the 2015 resolution to renounce support for airline service at their airport.

A 501(c)4 is a nonprofit classification that includes issue advocacy groups allowed to collect money without having to disclose who gave it to them.

“They are entitled to anonymous political speech under the First Amendment,” argued Lake’s attorney Carolyn “Tippi” Cain Burch before the court. “You may not want the rest of the community to know which side of an issue you fall on.”

Delta has made no secret of the fact that it opposes the development of a an airport that would compete with its hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International. But the airline has never admitted to funding Lake's organization nor disclosed how it is involved.

In a surprise move, Delta last month filed a friend of the court brief in the case defending its right to anonymity.

“Delta has a First Amendment right to engage in political activity and to remain anonymous, just as any other member of myriad political action committees that shape our country’s politics,” the airline said in its filing.

The second airport project in Paulding is on hold pending multiple lawsuits challenging the project. But that could change.

The airport debate continues to be a central issue in local political campaigns in Paulding — including in upcoming elections this year for seats on the county commission. If pro-commercialization commissioners regain the majority, some residents say, they could end the legal challenges and restart the effort to attract airline flights.

“This [project] is not abandoned,” Cochran said. “This is a real possibility.”

During the appellate court hearing, Judge William Ray said: “This is a big issue in Paulding County… and it has statewide implications I suspect.” But he asked attorneys to explain why it matters who funded The Committee to Protect Paulding County.

Attorney Don Geary — representing R. Thompson & Associates run by Rick Thompson, listed as treasurer of The Committee to Protect Paulding County — said it doesn't matter. Paulding residents elected commissioners who opposed commercialization, and those commissioners "did what they said they were going to do when they ran for election," Geary said.

But Cochran representing Silver Comet contended before the appellate judges: “You’ve got a public vote at a public meeting based on a false premise.”

Paulding airport: A timeline

2013: Paulding officials announce a plan to commercialize their airport and attract airline flights. Delta vows to fight the project. Lawsuits filed by residents challenging the commercialization follow.

2014: Voters elect anti-commercialization commissioners to Paulding's county commission, shifting the balance to an anti-commercialization majority on the five-member panel.

2015: Paulding commissioners vote to renounce support for commercializing their county airport. The Paulding airport authority continues with the commercialization effort, though lawsuits continue to stall the project.

2016: The FAA says it won't make a decision on the commercial certificate for Paulding's airport until legal questions are resolved by the courts.

2017: The city of Atlanta sues Paulding over plans for a second commercial airport.

2018: The Georgia Court of Appeals hears oral arguments on a push by Paulding airport developer Silver Comet to require depositions on Delta's involvement.

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