Gov. Brian Kemp, right, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan leveraged a technical error Nathan Deal made in his last days as governor to vacate a large number of his appointments and put in place Kemp’s own picks for state boards and commissions. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia’s new leadership flexes muscles, and regents undergo shake-up

Three mainstays of the powerful board that oversees Georgia’s public colleges and universities were effectively ousted as Gov. Brian Kemp and his allies try to assert more control over the state’s higher education system.

Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan leveraged a technical error Nathan Deal made in his last days as governor to challenge his appointment of three longtime members of the Board of Regents to new seven-year terms.

The fallout of the move, which crystallized late Thursday, meant that Dean Alford, Don Leebern Jr. and Richard Tucker will soon no longer serve on the board, one of the most coveted assignments in state government. It’s not immediately clear when their terms will end.

Leebern, a Columbus liquor magnate and wealthy benefactor, is the board’s second-longest-serving member in state history, and he’s long been intertwined in every major decision involving the higher education system — particularly those involving his alma mater, the University of Georgia.

The shake-up came after Duncan asserted last week that 64 board appointments made by Deal were not properly submitted, a maneuver that reflected a new power dynamic at the state Capitol just weeks after Deal’s second term in office ended.

State law requires the Senate to approve a governor’s appointments to boards, commissions and bureaus — a vote that’s typically approved with little debate or controversy.

When appointments are made in between legislative sessions, the law mandates that the governor must “submit” to the Senate a list of the names. Deal’s office sent that list to Duncan on Jan. 14, the day the lieutenant governor was sworn into office.

In a memo, Duncan attorney Regina Quick said the list wasn’t properly submitted because it was sent to the lieutenant governor before he took the oath of office.

Instead, she wrote, the list should have gone to the secretary of the state Senate, who is the de facto leader of the chamber before a presiding officer is sworn in.

Kemp’s new list of appointments, released late Thursday to the state Senate, excluded Deal’s lame-duck picks as regents. Some see it as a message that Kemp is frustrated with the way the higher education system operates, though his allies say there’s no broader motive behind the move.

A spokeswoman for the University System of Georgia declined to comment on the shake-up, as did Kemp’s office. In an interview, the 81-year-old Leebern said he hasn’t talked to Kemp and doesn’t plan to do so. But he said he’ll attend the next regents meeting Tuesday.

The governor also didn’t resubmit several other Deal appointments to influential boards and commissions, though he did include David Herring, the former head of the state’s executive security agency, who will remain on the state Board of Pardons and Parole.

The machinations rubbed some lawmakers the wrong way. State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, called it an “attack” on Deal’s legacy, and she criticized Duncan for pursuing the change while the ex-governor was recovering from back surgery at his North Georgia home.

Alford and Tucker are both veteran regents with business backgrounds and ties to the state’s GOP establishment. Neither could be reached for comment.

But the highest-profile among the three belongs to Leebern, who was first appointed to the board in 1991 by Gov. Zell Miller, who tutored Leebern while he was a football player at UGA in the 1950s.

Long a dominant figure on the board, Leebern remained a regent even as Republicans swept to power in Georgia, winning support from both Deal and Sonny Perdue.

He had input in every major decision at UGA for much of the past three decades and was a central part in legendary feuds between UGA administrators and athletics officials in the early 2000s.

Leebern was one of the chief allies of then-UGA President Michael Adams during a tug of war over finances between him and supporters of Vince Dooley, who at the time was the school’s long-serving athletics director.

In “Behind the Hedges,” a 2011 book recounting the struggle , journalist Rich Whitt wrote that Leebern pushed for Adams’ presidency “and was his chief defender each time Adams stubbed his toe.” In return, Whitt wrote, Leebern was given wide latitude to weather controversies that threatened his post.

Among them was scrutiny for distributing a wine bearing the UGA logo in violation of regents policy and, against NCAA regulations, financing a posh weekend in New York for former members of the UGA gymnastics squad in 2004.

Leebern has also been a major contributor to Republican leaders. Campaign records show Leebern, his family and businesses donated about $100,000 to Deal’s two gubernatorial campaigns. The Leebern network hedged its bets in last year’s governor’s race, giving Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle $56,000 in contributions and Kemp $63,000.

In the interview, Leebern said he was at ease with Kemp’s decision.

“I don’t really have an issue with that,” Leebern said. “Whatever he wishes to do, I will understand.”

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