Capitol Recap: Coffee GOP leader featured in video as sensitive election data was copied

‘She literally directed them’ during alleged breach, plaintiffs in election security suit say

Cathy Latham was the GOP chair for Coffee County and a member of the Georgia Republican Party’s executive committee.

She also was a fake elector who tried to cast Georgia’s votes in the Electoral College for Donald Trump, despite his loss in the state.

But she was an insider of a different sort on Jan. 7, 2021, according to a video Coffee County released in response to a lawsuit.

It shows Latham spending hours inside the county’s elections office with a team of computer analysts from the Atlanta tech firm SullivanStrickler who, at the direction of Trump attorney Sidney Powell, were sent there to copy sensitive confidential election data off Dominion Voting Systems machines.

In a deposition Latham gave last month as part of an election security lawsuit, she said she didn’t remember much of what happened or who was there that day. She repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

An attorney for SullivanStrickler has said Latham was a “primary point of contact” in coordinating the computer analysts’ visit to Coffee County.

Latham is seen in the video making introductions, looking at computers and taking selfies on her cellphone with one of the tech experts. Video images don’t include the election server room that was supposed to be kept secure.

“These new facts — which Latham pretends do not exist — refute her unsubstantiated insistence that she did not ‘participate in whatever SullivanStrickler and others were allegedly doing,’ ” plaintiffs said this past week in a court filing seeking documents from Latham. “She literally directed them on what to collect in the office.”

Latham attorney Bob Cheeley said in a statement that she has not acted improperly or illegally. Because Latham, the county’s Republican Party chairwoman at the time, wasn’t an elections employee, she couldn’t have authorized computer imaging or ballot scanning, he said.

The GBI and the secretary of state’s office are investigating, and a Fulton County special grand jury looking into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election is also seeking information about what happened in Coffee County.

Firms OK’d to produce cannabis oil seven years after it was approved for patients

The seven-year wait is nearing its end for Georgia patients suffering from critical illnesses who were approved to use medical marijuana but have no way to legally obtain it.

The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission this past week unanimously approved licenses for Botanical Sciences LLC and Trulieve Georgia Inc. to grow, manufacture and sell marijuana oil to 24,400 people on a state registry.

State lawmakers approved the use of the oil for patients in 2015, but they made no provision at that time for producing or marketing it within Georgia’s boundaries.

That meant that patients seeking treatment for illnesses including severe seizures, Parkinson’s disease and terminal cancers had to go out of state to get the oil — which can contain no more than 5% THC, the compound that produces a high for users. That exposed them to the possibility of federal prosecution for transporting drugs over state lines.

Then, three years ago, the General Assembly approved production of the oil and created the commission.

The commission originally intended to award production licenses last year to six of the 69 companies that sought them. But 15 of the losing companies alleged that the commission’s selection process was marred by inconsistent scoring in the bidding process, unclear criteria and arbitrary awards.

That put the medical marijuana program on hold for nearly a year until Gov. Brian Kemp appropriated $150,000 in emergency funds in April for an administrative law judge to quickly hold hearings and resolve the protests.

The judge rejected all the protests in decisions finalized earlier this month. But the commission only awarded two of the state’s six licenses because of pending litigation over the process.

The two winning companies will be able to cultivate medical marijuana oil on 100,000 square feet of indoor growing space.

Trulieve already operates growing facilities in six states and plans to open one in Adel in South Georgia. Botanical Sciences is a new company that plans to operate in Glennville, in southeast Georgia.

Each company will be able to open five dispensaries, which will serve only registered patients.

It’s unclear when the four remaining medical marijuana licenses could be issued. Those licenses are designated for smaller growing facilities, on 50,000 square feet of growing space.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia could be big beneficiary under Biden student loan plan

Student debt averages about $42,000 per borrower in Georgia, the third-highest level in the country, according to federal statistics. That places the state just behind the District of Columbia and Maryland.

About 1.5 million Georgians are eligible for relief under President Joe Biden’s executive order to cancel student loan debt, and most of them are qualified to receive the highest level of assistance under his plan.

Biden last month issued an executive order to eliminate up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers with an annual income of less than $125,000.

The same plan would cancel up to $20,000 in debt for recipients of Pell Grants, federal aid for undergraduate students with exceptional financial need. Most of those who have benefited from the program have annual household incomes of less than $60,000, according to some research.

Nearly 70% of those in Georgia eligible for forgiveness under Biden’s plan are also Pell Grant recipients.

Federal officials say the aim is to target lower-income communities disproportionately affected by student loans, with 71% of Black undergraduates and 65% of Hispanic undergraduates being Pell Grant recipients.

Critics say the plan is too costly, will increase inflation and isn’t fair to borrowers who paid their loans.

Nationally, 40 million borrowers are expected to receive some level of forgiveness, with nearly half of them having their debts completely forgiven, according to published reports.

U.S. Department of Education officials said additional information will be coming in a few weeks on how borrowers can benefit from the plan. Federal officials stressed all communications will be directly with borrowers, noting there are some people trying to scam the system.

Updates on the program can be found at studentaid.gov.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

Kemp eyes votes in suburbs

Gov. Brian Kemp has until now focused most of his attention on rural Georgia during his campaign for reelection.

It’s the same strategy that worked for him in a tight victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018.

But Kemp will venture into Atlanta’s suburbs on Tuesday when he and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin stump in Alpharetta.

Republicans once flourished in suburban counties such as Cobb and Gwinnett, but those former strongholds turned into much safer ground for Democrats during the 2016 presidential election.

Youngkin found success on similar turf in Virginia’s 2021 race for governor by embracing cultural issues in the classroom.

Kemp and his allies took notice, pushing a number of legislative initiatives with the aim of driving worried parents to the polls.

Earlier this year, Kemp signed into law a legislative package that:

  • Directs how public school educators teach students about race and “divisive concepts.”
  • Creates an oversight committee that could block transgender students from playing on sports teams that don’t match the gender on their birth certificate.
  • Eases the process for parents to seek the removal of books they consider “obscene” or inappropriate from public school classrooms and coursework.
  • Boosts a program that allows taxpayers to contribute to private school scholarships for a tax credit.
  • Lets parents opt their children out of mask mandates.

Kemp plans to keep the focus on the classroom if he defeats Abrams in a rematch. This month, he outlined a second-term education agenda that promises to spend an additional $65 million to address “learning loss” stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, recruit more counselors and help school staffers become full-fledged teachers.

State classroom supplies grant isn’t getting good marks from teachers

The $125 grants that Gov. Brian Kemp announced in July to help teachers offset the cost of their classroom supplies are not getting good grades from the people trying to use them.

The grants, being channeled through an online portal, are generating complaints about costs exceeding prices elsewhere. Selection also appears to be limited, and some say the system is hard to use.

Just one example of the problems: A high school teacher in Gwinnett County wanted to buy a laminator that would make it tougher for her special education students to tear up the papers she hands out. But she discovered it cost $105 through the portal when a major office supplier that wasn’t an option was charging $66 for the same item.

“It’s just been incredibly frustrating,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified out of fear for her job. “And then when you know that everything is double what it should cost, it’s like what’s the point.”

Sonya Allicock, a middle school in DeKalb County, said well-known retailers were an option in the spring, when Kemp issued $15 million in similar classroom supply grants.

The platform, ClassWallet, is a middleman between shoppers and retailers, offering governments a secure and trackable way to distribute resources, both at online vendors and in physical stores. It partners with niche shops, but also larger stores such as Office Depot and Staples. Those two big-box retailers, however, were not available this time to Georgia teachers. And using ClassWallet has been a sore point in other states where it has gotten contracts because of its cost markup over retailers costs.

Kemp spokesman Andrew Isenhour said by email that vendor options were changed after the spring round of grants due to conversations with federal regulators about how the money could be spent.

The grants are coming from COVID-19 relief funds.

“To remain compliant with those strict requirements, the vendors on the platform are limited to those who only sell school supplies and materials, which unfortunately eliminates some of the big-box retailers that offer additional products,” Isenhour said.

That isn’t so, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“There are no federal requirements for states to use ClassWallet or any specific vendor and any claims to the contrary are false,” a department spokesperson said by email.

That prompted this response from Kemp’s office: “There very much are restrictions when it comes to how the money can be used, even if they don’t dictate what platforms or vendors can be used.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Walker sets a low bar for debate

Herschel Walker’s series of bizarre statements on the campaign trail have convinced many political observers that the Republican will not do well next month when he debates Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Walker seems to be among them, assessing his chances during a recent campaign stop in Savannah with a self-effacing statement that almost sounds like an endorsement of Warnock:

“I’m not that smart,” Walker said, according to a report in The Savannah Morning News. “He’s a preacher. (Warnock) is smart and wears these nice suits. So, he is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate Oct. 14th, and I’m just waiting to show up and I will do my best.”

Walker may say that he’s “not that smart,” but he’s wise enough to know many politicians have won their debates by simply not losing as badly as had been predicted. And that involves lowering expectations.

Still, he could be in for a tough time when he meets Warnock on a Savannah stage, facing questions about his violent past, false claims that he worked in law enforcement, assertions that he graduated from college when he didn’t, exaggerations about his business record and bizarre statements, including promotion of a phony coronavirus cure.

Political expedience

  • Cover boy: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger appears on the front of Time magazine for a feature about “The Defenders,” election officials who resisted pressure from Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The article praises Raffensperger as one of six election leaders nationwide working to save American democracy, a group the magazine describes as “a loose brigade of unassuming public servants on the front lines of the fight to protect America’s election system from the Trump allies out to disrupt it.” Raffensperger’s Democratic opponent in November, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, describes him differently on Twitter as the supporter of a new state law that “makes it a crime to give water to a voter waiting in line & allows en masse voter challenges,” as someone who endorsed the takeover of Fulton County’s elections office while remaining silent on an alleged breach in Coffee County’s elections office, and of being someone who remains a “proud” Trump voter.
  • New support for Walker: Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund reported that it’s adding to its support for Herschel Walker’s campaign, pumping in an additional $3.25 million. The super PAC isn’t doing that for all Republican candidates. It recently scrapped almost $10 million worth of ads in Arizona, where Republican Blake Masters trails Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly in polls. Walker also got some good news from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, headed by Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott. The group filed paperwork this past week indicating it will up its spending for ads in Georgia by roughly $1.5 million.

More top stories online

Here’s a sample of other stories about Georgia government and politics that can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/: