Capitol Recap: Judge faces removal from Georgia Court of Appeals

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Panel finds he took advantage of older client and ‘illegally’ used campaign funds

It’s up to the Georgia Supreme Court to determine whether Christian Coomer will retain his position on the state’s Court of Appeals.

A panel recommended Coomer’s removal from the bench after he was found to have taken advantage of an older client and “illegally” used campaign funds, mixing them with his law firm’s assets and using them to help pay for family vacations.

Coomer, a former legislator, has been voluntarily suspended, with pay, since January 2021.

“Because the public cannot and should not have faith in (Coomer’s) ability to fairly dispense justice and uphold the law in light of his repeated violations ... (he) should be removed from office so as to preserve (or at least begin to rebuild) the public’s confidence in the integrity of our judicial system,” the panel wrote in its 50-page recommendation.

The panel, following a seven-day hearing that concluded just before Christmas, found that the Judicial Qualifications Commission had proved 29 of 36 ethics allegations against Coomer.

Coomer’s attorneys argued that while he made mistakes years before being appointed to the Court of Appeals, he deserves to remain on the bench.

“This man has a lifetime of good conduct and deserves to wear a robe,” Coomer attorney Mark Lefkow told the panel chaired by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney. The panel’s other two members were retired businessman Jack Winter and Dax Lopez, a Dunwoody attorney and former judge.

The panel found that Coomer had improperly mingled money from his campaign account with his law firm’s banking account. Four times in 2017, his campaign account transferred between $1,000 and $1,200 to his law firm account. Each time, Coomer’s law firm account would have suffered an overdrawn balance had the transfer not occurred, the panel found.

It also said Coomer improperly used campaign funds for family vacations to Israel and Hawaii.

Coomer admitted to “blurring the lines” between attorney and friendship when he asked former client Jim Filhart for three loans totaling nearly $370,000. Coomer said he repaid the money with interest, although most of it was returned after Filhart filed a lawsuit accusing Coomer of fraud and malpractice.

In May 2018, months before becoming a judge, Coomer drew up a last will and testament for Filhart, naming himself and his heirs as beneficiaries, which the panel said was a clear violation of legal ethics rules.

Midyear budget — with $1 billion property tax cut — makes progress in House

Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan for a property tax cut of about $1 billion moved ahead as the midyear spending plan advanced in the George House.

Legislation also has been proposed to provide a $1 billion income tax rebate that Kemp is seeking.

The $32.5 billion midyear budget, which runs through June 30, follows two years of massive tax surpluses. The state realized a record surplus in fiscal 2021. Then it topped that for fiscal 2022, which ended June 30, finishing with a surplus of about $6.6 billion.

The spending plan, if it wins approval, would provide homeowners an extra one-time exemption on the value of their homes at tax time. Kemp said last month that Georgians, on average, could save about $500.

Kemp proposed a $20,000 exemption on the taxable value of homes. But the state constitution caps such an exemption at $18,000, so the tax break could be slightly smaller.

The income tax rebate that Kemp proposed, under the legislation now working its way through the House, would be similar to what Georgians received last year, amounting to $500 for a married couple that files jointly.

The plan also includes:

  • $167 million that Kemp proposed to be used as regional business assistance grants, including for the electric-vehicle car plants that Hyundai and Rivian plan to build in Georgia.
  • $139 million to provide a $60,000 safety grant to each school.
  • $73 million to fund worker training programs for electric-vehicle plants that are set to come to the state.

The House added money to the budget to give 54,000 state government pensioners one-time bonuses of $250 to $300. House Appropriations Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, said he hopes the Senate will find money to add to those bonuses when it begins work on the budget.

The state can afford the increased spending because tax collections have surged since mid-2020, beginning with Congress’ approval of massive spending on federal aid to boost the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation followed, helping to boost sales tax collections — as consumers paid higher prices, they also spent more on taxes. Wages have also increased, helping fuel consumer spending.

Kemp is hoping for another surplus at the end of the fiscal year, although last year’s declines in the stock market are likely to cut into income tax collections.

Judge to weigh whether group’s widespread challenges intimidated voters

A federal judge will determine whether a Texas-based conservative group went too far in challenging the eligibility of 364,000 Georgia voters ahead of the state’s 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs.

An attorney for True the Vote, which has promoted unproven claims of election fraud, said Georgia laws allow residents to cast doubt on individuals who might have moved away. The attorney, Jim Bopp, said the group did not confront or discourage anyone from casting a ballot.

What it did do is recruit former Navy SEALs to monitor polling places, and it offered a $1 million bounty to defend fraud whistleblowers if they were sued.

True the Vote’s mass challenges, a lawsuit alleges, violated the Voting Rights Act’s protections against voter intimidation and coercion. Bringing the suit were several voters and Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group that Democrat Stacey Abrams founded.

“This is objectively intimidating,” said Uzoma Nkwonta, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Some voters will opt not to jump through these hoops and will not have the resources to overcome these challenges.”

Fair Fight Action is asking U.S. District Judge Steve Jones to bar True the Vote from making any future voter eligibility challenges and ban it from poll watching activities.

County election officials threw out almost all the challenges, which were based in part on information from change-of-address lists. Those lists can indicate when someone has moved, but they also include names of Georgia residents who may have temporarily relocated, such as members of the military and college students.

Bopp said True the Vote was using its First Amendment right to petition the government under Georgia laws that allow voter challenges. After the U.S. Senate runoffs — won by Democrats — the Republican-led General Assembly expanded the voter challenge law, allowing Georgians to contest the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters.

“This is serious stuff,” Bopp said. “We are talking about things that are core to the First Amendment.”

Jones asked whether True the Vote had acted responsibly by using the law in such a broad way that it affected eligible voters.

In one case, one of the plaintiffs was pulled from a line and had to wait several hours before election officials concluded she was able to cast a ballot.

“The argument being made of these challenges being reckless does cause some concern,” Jones said. “... I have a concern that if you challenge someone so close to an election, there could be an intimidating factor.”

Jones, who ruled against Fair Fight Action in a separate lawsuit last year, didn’t indicate when he would issue a ruling in the True the Vote case.

Rivian plant faces new court challenge

A new legal effort is underway to block Rivian’s plan to build a $5 billion electric-vehicle plant in Morgan and Walton counties.

Six people who either live in or own property in Morgan County, have filed lawsuits accusing the state of illegally circumventing local zoning codes and land disturbance permits while local officials refuse to enforce their codes.

It’s the next step in a legal battle that was briefly paused in December after a local judge refused to issue a stop-work order against grading work on the site.

“It’s a question of whether or not the state can run roughshod over the citizens because the state wants something to be done, even though it’s not for a public use or purpose,” said John Christy, an attorney representing opponents of the development. “It’s for a private enterprise.”

Rivian aims to employ 7,500 workers at the factory and begin manufacturing vehicles in 2025. In exchange, Rivian was offered more than $1.5 billion in state and local incentives.

A local development authority owns the site about an hour east of Atlanta that is zoned for agricultural use, not industrial.

Last February, the state assumed control of the project and withdrew rezoning applications before local officials could vote on them. Local zoning often does not apply to state-owned land, including properties owned by development authorities.

The Georgia Department of Economic Development said in a statement that “it is crystal clear that plaintiffs’ motivation is to file as many frivolous suits as possible and try to delay and stall progress on the Rivian project in a weak effort to cause Rivian to pull out of the deal.”

While the Rivian project enjoys support among many community and business leaders, it has generated vocal opposition from residents who worry the factory will upend their rural way of life by influencing further development and generating traffic.

The incentives have also faced challenges in court. A Morgan County judge shot down about $700 million in local property tax breaks in September. That ruling is being appealed.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Carter seeks national stockpile of medications in case of shortages

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a pharmacist by trade, has called for creation of a national stockpile of medications to ease the impact of shortages.

The Republican from Pooler has teamed up with U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, to introduce legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to produce a list of 50 generic medicines it considers essential during public health emergencies. The department, working with private distributors, would then build up six-month supplies of those medications to be available at all times.

Carter and Rochester wrote in an essay for The Hill that the stockpile of drugs would work like the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Preserve of crude oil.

“Millions of Americans are feeling the impact of drug shortages, from children’s Tylenol to amoxicillin,” they wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of our drug supply chains, underscoring America’s reliance on foreign — even hostile — nations for our most crucial medicines.”

Bill follows Kemp’s push to give welfare to low-income pregnant women

Georgia’s shrinking welfare rolls could start adding low-income pregnant women under legislation sought by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Those women currently would not be eligible for support under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly known as welfare, until a child is born.

Kemp pushed the change in policy during his State of the State address, and then Republican state Rep. Soo Hong of Lawrenceville filed House Bill 129 on his behalf.

Enrollment in TANF has been shrinking in Georgia for decades.

In June 2022, welfare benefits were granted to 6,190 Georgia households, according to data from the Division of Family and Children Services. That’s down 81% since 2006, the earliest year for which DFCS data is available, when 33,302 households received welfare benefits.

Under the current requirements for welfare, a child must be in a home with one parent, or if two parents are in the home, one must be physically or mentally incapacitated. School-age children must be immunized and have an acceptable school attendance record. There also are income requirements. For example, a family of three must have a gross income below $784 a month.

Last year, the Legislature extended the amount of time low-income Georgia mothers can receive benefits under Medicaid, the public health program that provides care to the poor and disabled, from six months to one year after the birth of a child. The year before, lawmakers bumped up the period for benefits from two months.

Political expedience

  • Chastain tops Ralston: Republican Johnny Chastain won a runoff race to win the Georgia House seat that former House Speaker David Ralston had held for 20 years. The North Georgia banker defeated Ralston’s widow, Sheree Ralston, after she was the top vote-getter in the first round of voting in House District 7.
  • Headed to new chamber: Former state Rep. Sam Watson, a Republican from Moultrie, will move over to the state Senate to fill the seat state Sen. Dean Burke gave up to become the chief medical officer in the state Department of Community Health. Watson defeated Democrat Mary Weaver-Anderson and Libertarian John Monds in a special election in Senate District 11.
  • House adds Cannon: Republican Chas Cannon will replace former state Rep. Sam Watson in House District 172, the seat Watson vacated to run for the state Senate. Cannon was the only candidate in this past week’s special election.
  • Race unsettled: A runoff will be required to determine who will represent House District 119. Republicans Charlie Chase and Holt Persinger were the top two finishers in a special election that was scheduled after Republican Danny Rampey withdrew from office before the start of this year’s legislative session. Rampey gave up the seat after he was charged with stealing prescription narcotics from a retirement complex where he worked.

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