Dr. Steve Foster, a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District: “I just looked around and I kept hoping someone would register against Graves. And when no one ever registered, I just went down on Friday and registered.”
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia congressional hopeful’s past includes bizarre boat theft case

Dr. Steve Foster, a Democrat vying for U.S. Rep. Tom Graves’ seat in North Georgia, says three things landed him and his charitable organization in hot water: good intentions, trumped-up drug charges and a messy divorce.

A first-time candidate, Foster, 61, has been investigated by the U.S. Army on allegations he stole surplus military boats to deliver humanitarian aid. Honduran police charged four of his charitable group’s employees with cocaine trafficking. And he has been stripped of his Georgia medical license and slapped with hundreds of thousands of dollars in local, state and federal tax liens.

Asked what voters should think of these troubles, Foster pointed to Graves’ past. In 2011, the congressman and a North Georgia bank reached a confidential settlement in a legal battle over a disputed loan agreement. The bank had been suing Graves and then-state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, alleging they had defaulted on a $2.2 million loan Bartow County Bank issued them in 2007 to buy and renovate a motel in Calhoun. Bartow County Bank failed in 2011.

RELATED: Rogers, Graves hit with IRS lien; bank lawsuit still pending

“I’ve never welshed on a thing like that,” said Foster, who owns a medical clinic in Dalton. “I just looked around and I kept hoping someone would register against Graves. And when no one ever registered, I just went down on Friday and registered.”

Graves, 48, who declined to comment for this article, has not faced serious competition at the ballot box since he won a 2010 special election to succeed Nathan Deal, who left Congress to focus on his run for governor. Bordering Alabama and Tennessee, the 14th District encompasses Dalton, Rome and Cedartown and is among the most conservative in the country. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political analysis organization, ranks it the 10th-most-Republican district in the nation. Donald Trump won 75 percent of the district’s vote in the 2016 presidential election.

A real estate investor and former state lawmaker, Graves arrived in Washington clearly aligned with the then-burgeoning tea party movement. He initially angered GOP leaders with his rabble-rousing style, but he has since changed his approach, adopting less flamboyant tactics and a more deal-making bent that have enabled him to increase his influence.

In-Depth: Georgia’s Tom Graves changed his ways, gained influence in Congress

Graves is a GOP vote-counter and a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, positions that have helped bolster his standing among Republicans and the Georgia delegation. He’s now the state’s senior Republican in the House and undoubtedly one of its most powerful, and he recently announced a dark-horse run for the chairmanship of the Appropriations panel.

Graves, who ended last year with a campaign war chest of $1.5 million, is campaigning on this year’s federal tax cuts, while Foster is focusing on improving health care, instituting “reasonable” gun control measures and putting a stop to what he called “military adventurism.”

Foster spoke about his rocky past during several interviews this week. His troubles started in 1999, when he was helping Hurricane Mitch victims through his charitable organization, Corazon a Corazon, Spanish for heart to heart. He said the U.S. military wouldn’t give him two surplus LCM-8 mechanized landing crafts it left behind at Fort Sherman in Panama, so he altered some official documents to acquire them, adding language saying: “Upon further reconsideration we have transferred these vessels.”

“I just made the transfer orders up to transfer the vessels,” he said, “And when I got down there — there was this Marine lieutenant colonel who was pretty sharp and who looked at me and said, ‘Captain, I don’t know what kind of (expletive) you are pulling. But I smell it. It stinks to high heaven. And you get those boats off my base and out of here before this thing blows up.’”

Foster said he used the boats to deliver food to Hondurans in the aftermath of the deadly hurricane. Eventually, he said, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command started probing his activities and he was charged with theft under an anti-piracy statute. He said he appeared for a federal trial in Atlanta but wasn’t convicted. A U.S. military tribunal in Miami, he said, prosecuted him, and he was later extradited to Panama, where he experienced another trial that didn’t end in a conviction.

The plot thickened in September 2000, when four employees of his charitable organization were arrested on drug charges in Honduras. Honduran police said the group unloaded dozens of packages of cocaine from one of the military boats he took from Panama, according to a United Press International report. Foster strenuously denied the drug charges, adding they were ultimately dropped.

At the time of the charges, Foster told UPI the drugs were planted and that his organization had been framed. Asked about that statement this week, Foster said: “All I would say is it was a lot more deeper and a lot more nefarious.”

Foster’s troubles weren’t over after that. He has been hit with local, state and federal liens totaling more than $300,000 for unpaid taxes, penalties and interest since 2005, public records show. He blamed his debts on a divorce, saying he has paid most of his back taxes and is disputing the rest.

Foster has written a book about his harrowing experiences, titling it “The Politics of Charity.” Meanwhile, he said, he is delivering wheelchairs to paralytics in Central America.

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