Deal appoints friends to port authority

Gov. Nathan Deal has named his business partner and two top contributors to the Georgia Ports Authority, a plum assignment that can open doors for businessmen.

Deal on Friday named Ken Cronan and James Walters, both of Gainesville, and Hugh M. Tarbutton of Sandersville to the governing board of the facilities that create nearly 8 percent of Georgia's gross domestic product.

Deal, through a spokesman, lauded the appointments, saying Walters, Cronan and Tarbutton have deep business experience that will serve the state well. But the public is left to decide whether the moves are aimed at improving one of the state's most valuable business assets or aimed at granting personal favors to the governor's business and political allies.

Deal's ties to Cronan and Walters are deep. Cronan and Deal are partners in Gainesville Salvage & Disposal. Walters leases office space to Deal's campaign and contributed nearly $30,000 to the governor's 2010 election. He was also chairman of the bank that provided Deal's campaign with a $250,000 line of credit.

Walters and Cronan are also officers in the Real political action committee formed in 2011. Deal's campaign slogan was "Deal. Real."

Tarbutton, a railroad executive, gave Deal's campaign more than $16,000.

"Mr. Tarbutton, Mr. Walters and Mr. Cronan are all successful business leaders willing to give of their valuable time to serve the state and Gov. Deal," said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson. "His appointees will bring their own diverse expertise to the board while also carrying out Gov. Deal's ambitious vision for our ports."

Cronan's business dealings with Deal have raised ethics questions before. Their Gainesville Salvage & Disposal once held a lucrative, no-bid agreement with the state to provide space for rebuilt vehicle inspections. Deal and Cronan were paid nearly $300,000 a year by vehicle owners over the 20 years of the agreement.

The AJC reported in 2009 that Deal, then a congressman, intervened with state officials to preserve the program; Deal said at the time he was worried proposed changes would lead to more unsafe cars on Georgia roads.

The newspaper's report led to a congressional ethics investigation that found Deal possibly violated U.S. House rules.

Steven Olson, director of the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility at Georgia State University, said the appointments are "worrisome."

The Georgia Ports Authority is a quasi-public agency governed by a 13-member board, all of whom the governor appoints. It's critical to Georgia business — directly supporting 153,884 Georgia jobs with $39.2 billion in statewide economic impact, according to one estimate.

With such stakes, the public might expect an appointment process where personal relationships are not a factor. But that's not how things work, Olson said.

"It's clearly a bias," Olson said of most political appointments. "You can't avoid it and people make decisions that are biased."

Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University and a Common Cause Georgia board member, said Deal is doing what previous governors have done, "but you would think that if government officials were truly concerned about ethics in government, they would avoid circumstances that could be construed to have conflict, such as this one."

The assignment to the Georgia Ports Authority is considered one of the most coveted posts in state government, along with a seat on the Board of Regents. Ports authority members often get to travel around the world, make international business contacts and can gain important knowledge of international trade.

Al Scott, a former chairman of the ports authority and a former Democratic state legislator, said board members benefit from their service.

"It's a position that you could make contacts internationally," Scott said. "It's a wonderful board to sit on. You learn a lot about international trade that you might otherwise wouldn't."

It is not unusual for a governor to appoint close friends or even relatives to the port authority.

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue came under fire in 2010 after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he and two men who run his trucking company met in Savannah with a half dozen ports authority employees. By the time he left office in January 2011, Perdue had appointed or reappointed every member of the Ports Authority board and named his cousin, David A. Perdue Jr., to the board in 2010. Perdue also named Alec Poitevint, who chaired Perdue's 2002 campaign, to the authority.

About the Author