Capitol Recap: GOP senators seek sanction against DA who brought Trump indictment

Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis is nationally known these days as the prosecutor of former President Donald Trump. .Here are some things you might not know about her. For example, her name, pronounced FAW-nee, is Swahili and means prosperous.Willis is the first female district attorney in Georgia’s most populous county and was sworn in Jan. 1, 2021.She was raised by her father, John Clifford Floyd III, in California and Washington, D.C. He was a criminal defense lawyer and a Black Panther.Before Trump, Willis was perhaps best known for her work as the lead prosecutor on the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating case

Democrats, Republicans each charge other with fulfilling political agenda

Somebody must be playing politics.

Is it Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who initiated an investigation into election interference that led to an indictment of former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies?

Or could it be the eight Republican state senators who sought sanctions against her, alleging in a complaint to a new oversight panel for prosecutors that she had “improperly cherry-picked cases to further her personal political agenda”?

Democrats and Republicans are each accusing the other of engaging in political theater.

The complaint — filed with the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualification Commission only hours after its creation when a state law took effect Oct. 1 — didn’t specifically mention Trump, currently the GOP’s leading candidate for the 2024 presidential nomination.

Instead, the senators focused on troubles at the Fulton County Jail, where 10 inmates have died this year.

They maintain in the complaint that Willis, a Democrat, has “prioritized cases that align with her political party’s interests” and that “selective prosecution has resulted in dangerous, deadly, and unjust overcrowding in the local jail and an unprecedented backlog of cases in the judicial system.”

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans announced that a subcommittee will investigate Willis as part of a larger examination of problems at the jail, focusing on her handling of the backlog of cases that worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

Expect more to come.

State Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, one of the eight who filed the complaint, said he’s still exploring other options to reprimand Willis, including legislative hearings that could scrutinize her use of public resources.

“We won’t relent,” he said, “until she feels the consequences of her misplaced priorities.”

But not all Republicans think Willis warrants the attention of the new oversight panel, which has the ability to punish and even remove district attorneys for a range of causes such as “willful misconduct” or “persistent failure” to follow the law.

Gov. Brian Kemp — a chief sponsor of the law that created the panel, known as Senate Bill 92 — has repeatedly said there’s no evidence Willis should face any sanctions by the commission for bringing the indictment against Trump and his allies alleging they participated in a “criminal enterprise” to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

Kemp, however, has criticized the timing of the charges.

“It may be a political action she’s taken in some ways, with timing and other things,” Kemp said. “But it doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”

Any decision by the commission could take time.

The panel’s members have indicated they can’t discipline a prosecutor until the Georgia Supreme Court puts its stamp on rules and regulations that the commission must propose.

Officials with the Georgia Ports Authority say a new round of deepening of the Savannah channel is needed to remain competitive as international trade routes shift from the West Coast to the East Coast. Work ended 18 months ago on a $1 billion dredging project.

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Bigger ships could require additional dredging for Savannah port

Work ended just last year on a $1 billion dredging of the Savannah River channel to accommodate larger container ships.

So it’s time to start thinking about doing it again.

Officials with the Georgia Ports Authority say a new round of deepening is needed for Savannah to remain competitive as international trade routes shift from the West Coast to the East Coast.

India, Thailand and Vietnam have emerged as manufacturing rivals to China, and ships leaving those ports can reach Savannah and other East Coast ports via the Suez Canal as quickly as they can cross the Pacific Ocean and go through the Panama Canal. The Suez Canal can handle bigger vessels than the Panama Canal, which is economically advantageous to exporters.

The last dredging project, which ended in March 2022, dropped the river bottom to 47 feet, deep enough to handle the biggest ships that pass through the Panama Canal. But Suezmax vessels, as they’re known, carry up to 9,000 more containers than the Panama Canal freighters and need at least 50 feet of depth below the waterline when fully loaded.

Alphaliner, a shipping consulting firm, reported in February that nearly a quarter of all container ships on order or under construction are for Suezmax vessels.

A new dredging project would not only deepen the channel but widen the lane as well.

Savannah’s channel includes several chokepoints where ships can’t pass each other. Vessels often must stop to let another ship clear these narrow sections before proceeding.

That problem only grows with larger ships.

Georgia’s ports are key to the state’s economy. A recent study showed they support 561,000 jobs and contribute $59 billion annually to Georgia’s gross domestic product.

Authorization of a new dredging study would come as part of next year’s renewal of the federal Water Resources and Development Act. The measure, renewed every two years, enables the Army Corps of Engineers to take action on a specific list of projects meant to improve rivers, harbors and other bodies of water. The authorization, however, does not include funding for those initiatives.

Georgia’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, have already expressed support for a study, as has Republican Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents the region in the U.S. House.

Opposition could come from environmental advocates who would seek protection against damage to wetlands and the impact the work could have on the Floridian Aquifer, the main source of drinking water for 10 million Americans.

There’s no telling when the work, if approved, would be done. On the most recent project, it took 25 years between when the Corps of Engineers conducted its study and the last shovel of river bottom was excavated.

Lawmakers plan legislation aimed at Iran in response to Hamas attack on Israel

Georgia legislators, in response to Hamas’ surprise invasion of Israel, could soon consider a measure targeting companies owned by the Iranian government.

Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a member of Republican leadership, said Senate leaders plan to introduce legislation to “ban Iranian interests and businesses” from doing business with Georgia.

“We should do everything we can to support Israel, big and small,” Anavitarte said.

Iran is a primary benefactor of Hamas, which launched an attack from Gaza over the weekend that left more than 1,200 dead.

The Georgia legislation would be modeled after a 2022 measure designed to ban companies “owned or operated” by the Chinese government from seeking state contracts. Firms that lie about their affiliation face a fine of at least $250,000.

Agencies’ requests for more money include health care spending, raises

With the state sitting on a pile of cash in the neighborhood of $5 billion, it seems certain that in 2024 lawmakers will use tax rebates to return some of that money to Georgians — just as they have the past two years when dealing with huge surpluses.

It will be an election year, after all, with every seat in the General Assembly up for grabs.

But that’s only how some of the surplus could be used.

Gov. Brian Kemp surprised many in August when he invited state agencies to ask for money to bump up their budgets next year by as much as 3%.

Requests came in a variety of forms, including increases in health care spending, pay raises, law enforcement and prisons.

Here are some of the big asks:

  • About $250 million for two programs that provide grants for business growth, mostly in rural Georgia.
  • $150 million for the state’s prison system to pay for inmate health care, plus an additional $2 million in the midyear budget for fiscal 2024 and the fiscal 2025 budget to provide an additional meal to prisoners on the weekend.
  • $20 million to boost superior court judges’ salaries, an issue lawmakers debated during the mid-2010s.

The Board of Regents made several big requests, sometimes to restore money that Kemp and lawmakers had cut in the spring.

They included:

The cut represented just over half the $105 million that Kemp and lawmakers approved for a new electronic medical records system for the Medical College of Georgia, part of Augusta University. Senate leaders questioned that cost, approved amid talks encouraging the private Wellstar Health System to partner with the AU Health System. Wellstar finalized its takeover of the AU system in August.

  • $389,000 of the $1.17 million that lawmakers cut from the budget of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Kemp will take the requests under consideration when putting together his midyear budget for fiscal 2024 and the fiscal 2025 budget.

The governor has already committed some of the money from the surplus by suspending the motor fuel tax that brings in $150 million to $170 million per month for road and bridge construction. Kemp recently extended the suspension for a second month until Nov. 11, and he’s expected to keep renewing the levy until sometime in 2024.

The state has used extra revenue to increase state employee and teacher salaries, and expand services for things such as mental health and substance abuse programs, law enforcement and education.

Patients eligible to use low THC cannabis oil for treatment in Georgia will soon be able to obtain it from independent pharmacies under a rule approved by the Board of Pharmacy and Gov. Brian Kemp. One of the companies licensed by the state says the move will mean about 90% of the state’s population will soon be within a 30-minute drive of a pharmacy selling the drug.

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Medical marijuana to be sold in pharmacies, expanding access to patients

Georgia patients eligible to obtain medical marijuana will soon have a new option: independent pharmacies.

Seven dispensaries have opened in Georgia since April in or near the cities of Augusta, Macon, Marietta, Newnan and Savannah.

But under a rule that the Board of Pharmacy recently passed and Gov. Brian Kemp approved, about 90% of the state’s population will soon be within a 30-minute drive of a pharmacy selling low THC cannabis oil, according to one of the two companies the state has licensed to produce the drug.

That company, Botanical Sciences, has an agreement with nearly 120 pharmacies to provide the oil, which cannot have more than 5% THC, the compound that gives users a high.

Jonathan Marquess, vice president of the Georgia Pharmacy Association and the owner of several metro Atlanta pharmacies, said there are more than 400 independent pharmacies in the state. He expects a majority of them will be interested in selling low THC oil.

“We’re going to have patients that need this health care in some remote parts of Georgia that probably would never have a dispensary near them,” Marquess said.

Andrew Turnage, executive director for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, said the new pharmacy rule “will put access in virtually every county in the state.”

Medical marijuana is only available to Georgians with approval from a physician to treat severe illnesses including seizures, terminal cancers, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients can only buy cannabis oil if they show a state-issued low THC oil registry card and ID.

The General Assembly approved distribution of low THC oil as part of a state law passed in 2019, but it has taken years to create regulations for safety, inspections, licensing and distribution.

That’s why Georgia is among the last states to make medical marijuana available to its residents. But it will be the first state in the nation to offer cannabis products at drugstores.

The product isn’t being sold by national drugstore chains such as CVS and Walgreens.

It will likely take a few weeks before medical marijuana is available in pharmacies. After they submit applications, inspections will be required before the board grants its approval.

An investigation by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that the the company that runs the Stewart Detention Center, the state's largest facility for holding migrants, received more than $12.5 million for unused bed space over the course a year during the coronavirus pandemic. (Brian Cahn/Zuma Press Wire/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Feds spent millions for empty beds at Georgia immigrant detention facility

The company that runs Georgia’s largest immigrant detention center received more than $12.5 million for unused bed space over the course of a year during the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s according to an investigation by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that included a surprise visit to South Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center.

During a recent calendar year, Immigration and Customers Enforcement paid $12.6 million for beds that went unused to CoreCivic, the company contracted to run Stewart.

The agency guaranteed payment for 1,600 detainees per day at a fixed daily rate of $67.68 per bed.

But from November 2021 to November 2022, the daily population at the detention center in Lumpkin averaged just over 1,000, leaving empty roughly 600 beds every day with the federal government footing the bill.

Neither CoreCivic nor ICE responded to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s requests for comment. Agency representatives have previously said that the use of guaranteed minimums helps the government negotiate a lower rate per detainee.

The number of guaranteed beds in ICE’s detention system expanded by 45% during the Trump administration.

The Office of the Inspector General recommended that ICE “review and update” its contract with CoreCivic and determine whether guaranteed minimums are necessary. ICE’s response, included in the report, stated that capacity was reduced during inspectors’ visit because of COVID-related measures, and that it was “currently in the process of moving (Stewart’s) capacity back to pre-pandemic levels and working toward meeting its guaranteed minimum.”

It still has a ways to go.

As of Sept. 24, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Stewart’s average daily population has only risen to 1,224, leaving hundreds of beds still empty but paid for by taxpayers.

Millions of federal dollars have also been spent on empty beds at immigrant detention facilities in other states. A separate inspector general report earlier this year found that ICE paid more than $8 million for beds that went unused in a facility in Louisiana.

A 2021 analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined that ICE spent more than $20 million a month nationwide for empty beds in mid-2020.

“Planning for detention space needs can be challenging, according to ICE officials, because the agency must respond to factors that are dynamic and difficult to predict,” the GAO study states. “A strategic approach to using guaranteed minimums could help position ICE to balance these factors and make more effective use of federal funds.”