Gov. Nathan Deal, up for re-election in November, gets big financial support from the Georgians he appoints to the state’s top public boards. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: Kent D. Johnson
Photo: Kent D. Johnson

Three powerful Georgia boards help bankroll Gov. Nathan Deal

Three elite state boards help decide how much students pay for college, how easily goods are moved to and from coastal ports and whether the state’s natural resources are protected.

Members of the Board of Regents, Georgia Ports Authority and Board of Natural Resources also play an out-sized role bankrolling the political campaigns of Gov. Nathan Deal.

More than four-fifths of members on those boards, nearly all of whom were appointed or reappointed by Deal, have contributed nearly $1.3 million to Deal’s campaign and political action committee, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of campaign records.

That includes money from their businesses and family members, and amounts to about 9 percent of all the money Deal and his political action committee (PAC) have raised since he began his campaign for governor in 2009. By contrast, Deal’s campaign has reported more than 6,000 contributions of $500 or less. Few of those donors have been appointed to major boards.

David Poythress, who serves on the board of ethics watchdog Common Cause Georgia, called the amount of contributions from such a small group “amazing.”

“In a perfect world, people should be appointed on their philosophy and ability to do the job,” said Poythress, a one-time state adjutant general and former longshot Democratic gubernatorial candidate. “In the world of real politics, it’s going to be the big donors that are going to get these positions.”

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor is following the pattern of past administrations, both Democratic and Republican.

“When appointing members, Gov. Deal looks for respected community leaders willing to give of their time and talents, and he looks for people who share his vision for the board on which they will serve,” he said.

Board members interviewed by the AJC said they do not donate to get influential board appointments.

But the campaign data shows an overwhelming correlation. Forty-three of the 51 members who serve on the Board of Regents, Ports Authority or Board of Natural Resources — 84 percent — have contributed to Deal or his PAC, a ratio that far outstrips the proportion of Americans who make campaign donations.

Nationally, less than two-tenths of 1 percent of American adults contribute $200 or more to political candidates or parties, according to OpenSecrets.org, a non-partisan campaign finance group in Washington, D.C.

Deal’s practice of drawing from his donor base to make key board appointments has another byproduct: most of the appointees hail from successful business backgrounds, and the vast majority are white men, leading to a glaring lack of diversity on institutions that impact the lives of all Georgians.

Of 51 Georgians on those three boards, 43 are white men. One is an African-American. Five are women. Two are Indian-American brothers.

By contrast, the U.S. Census estimates that more than 40 percent of Georgia’s population is African-American or Hispanic, and 51 percent are women.

‘Modern day politics’

Governors have long appointed big campaign donors to serve on key state boards and commissions, sometimes as a reward, some times because donors are like-minded Georgians who can advance their agenda. They can be longtime friends, supporters and occasionally, business associates, such as Ken Cronan, Deal’s longtime business partner, who he appointed to the Ports Authority. Or they can be captains of industry, successful multi-millionaire business executives who donate to whomever is in charge, regardless of the party.

The AJC focused its review on three boards — the state Board of Regents, the Georgia Ports Authority and the Board of Natural Resources — because they have traditionally been packed with the state’s elite. Unlike the also-coveted Department of Transportation board, which is picked by lawmakers, the Regents, Ports Authority and DNR boards are chosen by the governor.

“Those are the plums,” said George Hooks, a former Democratic state lawmaker who served last year on the Board of Regents. “The governor is going to reserve those for people they want to reward and he thinks are capable.”

Robinson declined to answer directly a question about how campaign donations influence the governor’s appointment process, and instead noted that President Carter named Anne Cox Chambers, one of his financial backers and a principal owner of Cox Enterprises, owner of the AJC, ambassador to Belgium in 1977.

“I’m sure she was perfectly qualified, as are Gov. Deal’s appointees,” Robinson said.

Robinson said diversity is one of the issues Deal considers when appointing board members. Increasing diversity is also a goal of some board members.

“I would like to see more females on the board and more racial diversity,” said Philip Wilheit Jr., chairman of the DNR board and a major Deal backer. “Diversity is an important goal but you need to also find the people who have the passion and who want to serve.”

Five families have more than one member on one of the three boards. Three of them — the Leeberns, Tarbuttons and Wilheits — and their companies have contributed about $375,000 to Deal campaigns.

Ben Tarbutton III, assistant vice president of the Sandersville Railroad Company, was first appointed to the Board of Regents by Gov. Sonny Perdue. Deal then reappointed him. He called the money part of “modern day politics.”

“I think it is an opportunity for me to be part of the process,” said Tarbutton, whose family has long been major donors to state political leaders, whether administrations were Democratic or Republican. “It takes dollars for these candidates to run the type of campaigns that they need to run.”

Some board members were appointed by Deal’s predecessor, Perdue. Others gave to Deal’s 2010 election opponent — former Gov. Roy Barnes — before donating to Deal. None of the board members contacted by the AJC said the contributions were meant to influence the governor to select or re-appoint them to boards. In fact, several board members talked of their service on the unpaid boards as time-consuming sacrifice, albeit one they were glad to make.

“It is probably one of the highest honors of my life to serve the state of Georgia,” Tarbutton said.

The three boards are attractive to Georgia’s business elite for several reasons.

The Ports Authority board is the governing body for a business that is estimated to support 352,000 jobs throughout the state. Members of the board have traditionally gone on international trade missions and made contacts with businesses across the globe. Perdue was criticized for meeting with ports authority staffers before he left office to talk about how he could grow his private business. Before finishing his second term as governor, he appointed his cousin, Georgia U.S. Senate nominee David Perdue, to the board.

The Regents govern an independent system of 31 colleges and universities, ranging from the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State to two-year feeder schools. Its members have traditionally been the biggest donors to governors and the panel has been called the most prestigious in Georgia. Members help chart the course for an education system seen as an incubator for both the state’s next generation of leaders and for economic innovation.

The Board of Natural Resources oversees some of Georgians’ most basic needs, including air and water quality. But given the complexity of the department, the board also has say-so over everything from hunting licenses to state-owned golf courses, with ancient Indian burial grounds and Civil War battlefields in-between. It sets regulations for things like erosion setbacks and land buffers that sometimes pit developers against environmentalists.

‘A business investment’

Steve Wrigley, executive vice chancellor of the University System, said when he served as Gov. Zell Miller’s chief of staff in the 1990s, some people came to the administration asking for board appointments, and some were asked to serve without requesting the post.

“For a lot of these folks, it’s about, ‘How do I advance the interests of the state,’” Wrigley said. “A lot of these people care about public service. It’s part of their family ethics.”

Some, Poythress said, put money into candidates to give them a chance to serve or stay on boards and rub elbows with people like themselves — wealthy executives with a lot of connections.

“You would call some of those folks political investors,” he said. “They give not because they share any kind of (partisan) political philosophy, but they support people either in office or they think will win office. It’s basically a business investment.”

Alec Poitevint served as Georgia Republican Party chairman and helped head Perdue’s re-election efforts. His family donated about $25,000 to Perdue’s campaign, but he said he didn’t ask for a spot on the Ports Authority, on which he now serves. His wife Doreen had long been interested in advancing Georgia’s libraries, and Perdue put her on the Regents, who also govern the state library system.

“One day, Sonny called me to come and have barbecue with him,” Poitevint remembers. “He said, ‘I think you need to serve on a board.’”

Poitevint said he was given a few options, including the DNR board and Ports Authority. Poitevint, a Bainbridge businessman and longtime president of Southeastern Minerals, Inc., picked the Ports Authority board, and he was appointed by Perdue in 2007. Poitevint contributed $2,500 to Deal’s campaign in 2011, after he had been reappointed to the board.

Augusta real estate developer and philanthropist James Hull contributed about $50,000 in 2013 to Deal’s campaign and a political action committee set up to support the governor a few months before being appointed to the Board of Regents. Three years earlier, Hull had given $7,100 to the Democrat beaten by Deal in 2010, Barnes.

“I supported various candidates from both sides of the aisle through the years,” Hull said. “I became impressed with Gov. Deal’s mantra of figuring out ‘what was smart’ and the ‘right approach,’ notwithstanding prior politics.”

The Augusta businessman said he wasn’t seeking a spot on the Regents when he contributed to Deal’s campaign and PAC.

“I never envisioned being on a state board, never,” he said. “At first I was overwhelmed with appointment to the Board of Regents but now I am gratified for the special opportunity to contribute.

“I’m a strong advocate for using one’s time and money as a catalyst for great things to come. Serving on a state board provides a better vehicle to achieve the goal of an improved higher education system,” Hull said.

While Deal and Hull may not have been close politically in the past, other board members such as the Wilheits are longtime friends and supporters. Philip Wilheit Sr. is the Regents’ chairman this year and leads the family business, Wilheit Packaging.

His son, Wilheit Jr. is a partner in Wilheit Packaging and said he has long had a passion for the outdoors and conservation. He’s been hunting and fishing since he was a child, and he said the DNR has a key role in keeping “our rivers clean, managing wildlife decisions and managing the different lands our citizens use.”

Environmentalists have criticized the DNR board in the past as being dominated by developers and business interests. Wilheit disagrees with that contention.

“Any decision we make with a property is to make sure the rivers are as clean as possible. Just like anything, it’s going to be impossible for us to satisfy every environmentalist out there. Just like it’s impossible to satisfy every developer out there.”

Sally Bethea, founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said too many of those appointed to the DNR board “are there solely to protect certain industries from environmental policies that they perceive as threats to their bottom line.

“These board members do the bidding of powerful insiders who are often gubernatorial campaign contributors,” she said. “The board is currently dominated by wealthy white men, even more so today than when I served on the board in the 2000s.”

Bethea was appointed to the DNR board in 1999 by Gov. Roy Barnes, but the Senate refused to accept her reappointment by Perdue. Bethea contributed at least $3,000 to Barnes’ re-election campaign after being appointed.

“I have no doubt that if I’d contributed enough money to certain state officials in 2007, I would not have been removed from the Board of Natural Resources,” she said.

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