Georgia troopers fired in school cheating scandal

The 106th GSP Trooper School poses for a graduation photo in August 2019. (Credit: Georgia State Patrol)

ATLANTA – An entire cadet class with the Georgia State Patrol has been fired after a cheating scandal involving an online test required to use the agency’s radar speed detectors.

All 30 members of the 106th GSP Trooper School manipulated the test with outside help from a civilian and later confessed to cheating, Georgia Public Safety Commissioner Mark McDonough said Wednesday during a news conference at the agency’s Atlanta headquarters.

The cadets managed to write at least 133 traffic citations since graduating in August before being suspended amid the investigation, McDonough said.

Local judges are being notified about those traffic citations, he added.

Although the agency has more than 800 troopers, McDonough said removing the fired troopers could impact parts of the state where traffic enforcement is already sparse.

The agency has scrapped the online course and instituted in-person classes only for radar instruction, McDonough said. He indicated supervisors and past classes could face scrutiny in an audit of the training school that the agency plans to conduct.

“It goes to the core of what we do,” McDonough said Wednesday. “Enforcing the speed limit is one of the core functions of what the patrolman has always done.”

The trainee troopers banded together to help each other pass the test after two of their classmates failed in May, according to an investigation report GSP released Wednesday. Several circulated test questions in their dorm rooms at the training facility in Forsyth, searched the answers on Google and communicated with each other via online messaging apps.

They also coordinated on the app Snapchat to “get their stories straight” once the internal investigation started, McDonough said.

Many of the fired cadets said they cheated because they feared failing the difficult test and adopted an “I did what I had to do” attitude, McDonough said. The students who failed previously were among the smarter members of the class, he said. That prompted concerns everyone could fail.

But McDonough disputed the rigor of the test, saying it aims to teach troopers the science behind how radar works so they can bring the needed background to help prove court cases.

“It was something that you had to pay attention, but it wasn’t rocket science,” he said.

McDonough said he did not know how long trooper trainees in Georgia have been taking the radar exam online.

Doug Collins announces U.S. Senate campaign

Congressman Doug Collins speaks outside the Georgia House of Representatives on Jan. 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Georgia’s wild year of politics just got wilder.

After much speculation, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins announced Wednesday morning that he will challenge appointed U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler to fill the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.

Collins’ decision risks splitting Republican support in Georgia at a time when Democratic leaders see their prospects growing to flip seats in Congress and the state legislature.

The campaign comes as Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia also seeks to keep his seat. He has drawn three Democratic challengers.

Along with Collins and Loeffler, the race for Isakson’s old Senate seat includes Democratic candidate Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

The move also opens the race for a third congressional seat in Georgia covering Collins’ Gainesville-based district, following the decisions of U.S. Reps. Tom Graves and Rob Woodall – also Republicans – not to seek re-election.

A Baptist pastor and U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain, Collins hails from a staunchly conservative part of the state and was President Donald Trump’s pick to succeed Isakson. His tirades against congressional Democrats in defending the president against charges of Russian collaboration and impeachment over Ukraine have raised his national profile over the past year.

“We’re getting ready for a good time down here to keep defending this president, keep working for the people of Georgia,” Collins said in announcing his candidacy Wednesday morning on the “Fox and Friends” television program.

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, was chosen by Gov. Brian Kemp last month to finish Isakson’s term. Isakson stepped down at year’s end due to health complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Loeffler has the governor’s strong support, as well as backing from other powerful and well-financed groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“The shortsightedness of this decision is stunning,” said NRSC Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin. “Doug Collins’ selfishness will hurt David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler and President Trump.”

The wife of a billionaire financier and herself formerly head of a bitcoin company, Loeffler has millions of dollars at her disposal to wage a tough campaign. She has already begun pouring money into campaign ads in recent weeks.

Collins dismissed questions that his candidacy could split the Republican base or fall flat in the face of Loeffler’s financial might.

“We just need to have a process that lets people decide, lets them choose for themselves how they want to see this vision,” Collins said on “Fox and Friends” Wednesday.

Collins’ entry in the race also puts him and powerful supporters like Georgia House Speaker David Ralston on a collision course with Kemp. Ralston threw his political weight behind Collins in the House on Tuesday, calling him a steadfast friend.

“He has stood by me when few would,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I don’t forget things like that.”

Meanwhile, Kemp rallied support for his pick in Loeffler in an emailed statement Tuesday, touting her anti-abortion stance and support for Trump’s agenda.

“Kelly is a life-long Republican who shares our conservative values and vision for a safer, stronger Georgia,” the governor said.

Circling the political fray is House Bill 757, a measure that could pave an easier path for Collins to win the race against Loeffler.

Currently, special elections in Georgia are decided by free-for-all “jungle” primaries in which all candidates – Democratic and Republican alike – compete on the same ballot. The House measure would restore the traditional party primaries in May, followed by a November general election between the primary winners.

If passed, the special-election bill moving through the state legislature would greatly reduce chances for a runoff in a jungle primary, which likely would result in votes being split between several strong candidates all competing at once. The top candidate in the free-for-all format would need more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff with the second-highest vote getter.

The bill looks headed soon for a vote on the House floor. Kemp has already said he will veto it.

Update of Georgia Right to Farm Act draws fire

ATLANTA – Legislation supporters say updates a 1980s state law aimed at protecting farmers from nuisance lawsuits is running into opposition from environmental groups.

The Georgia Right to Farm Act of 2020, now before the state Senate, would make it more difficult for property owners living in areas zoned for agriculture to sue nearby agricultural operations such as poultry houses or cattle ranches for offensive smells or runoff from sludge lagoons.

In order to sue, property owners would have to be located within five miles of the source of the alleged nuisance. The bill also would require lawsuits to be brought within two years after a nuisance occurs, compared to four years in the current law.

Supporters told members of the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee Tuesday farmers need more protection against nuisance lawsuits as Georgia’s growing population brings more people who don’t farm for a living into closer proximity to agricultural operations.

“Agribusiness often comes with smells, sights, and dust,” said Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. “We have to decide whether to protect the state’s No.-1 industry.”

But opponents said the current Right to Farm Act has worked in the more than 30 years it’s been on the books.

“We’re trying to fix a problem that I don’t think really exists,” said Damon Mullis, executive director of the Savannah-based environmental group Ogeechee Riverkeeper.

Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, said the proposed changes to the law would make existing owners of farm properties more vulnerable to large agricultural polluters that move into their neighborhoods. She questioned the need to change the law when there’s no data showing whether there has been an outbreak of nuisance lawsuits in Georgia.

Jody Sullivan, who owns four poultry houses in Gordon County, told the committee he has fallen victim to nuisance suits. He said he has spent thousands of dollars defending himself from several suits filed by non-farming neighbors after he began raising chickens in 2015.

“It’s getting hard for us to keep going,” Sullivan said.

Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, said farmers in other states are being hit with lawsuits, and lawmakers have responded with legislation giving farmers greater legal protections.

“If one lawsuit is successful [in Georgia], it would open up the floodgates for a multitude of lawsuits,” he said.

The committee could vote on the bill as early as next week.

Most 17-year-old offenders in Georgia would not face adult court per House bill

ATLANTA – Youth offenders in Georgia would need to be at least 18-years old to be tried in adult court for all except the most serious violent crimes under a bill filed in the 2020 legislative session.

Georgia is one of three states that try 17-year-olds as adults for misdemeanors charges in criminal court. The minimum age would be raised to 18 years under House Bill 440, sponsored by Rep. Mandi Ballinger, D-Canton.

Supporters say 17-year-old offenders should not be jailed with violent adults, both for their own physical safety and to remove them from constant contact with criminal behavior. Skeptics worry the change could let more crime-prone juveniles go free.

Teenagers would still be tried as adults for violent crimes like murder and rape under the bill.

Most 17-year-olds in Georgia are arrested for theft, drug, assault and disorderly-conduct crimes, said Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate with the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. Keeping them out of the adult justice system would help reduce the chances they commit more crimes as an adult.

“We have the opportunity to shape their futures…by providing them with the services they need even when they mess up,” Rovner said at a House Juvenile Justice Committee meeting Tuesday.

The number of teenagers arrested in Georgia has fallen sharply over the past decade, Rovner said. He presented figures showing roughly 30% of the the total 24,037 juveniles arrested in Georgia in 2017 were aged 17.

Despite the decline, some lawmakers want a deeper dive on how much it would cost juvenile courts and detention centers to take on 17-year-olds before moving forward on the bill.

“I think there’s universal agreement that this is the right thing to do,” said Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock. “We just need to look at it more so we don’t have fiscal impacts that we didn’t consider.”

The bill stalled in last year’s legislative session. Ballinger chairs the House Juvenile Justice Committee where the bill needs approval to reach the full House.

This story has been updated to clarify information presented by Joshua Rovner,

Dual enrollment bill clears Georgia Senate

ATLANTA – A bill restricting student dual enrollment in high school and college classes in Georgia cleared the Senate floor Tuesday.

Sponsored by state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, House Bill 444 would limit dual enrollment to 30 hours per eligible student for college or technical college courses the state-run student-finance agency funds. Beyond that, students would pay for classes out of their own pockets.

The bill has backing from Gov. Brian Kemp as he seeks to trim hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget. Supporters say the growing number of participating students could prompt the program to run out of money.

“We see how much this program has grown with no guardrails in place, with no end in sight,” said Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, one of Kemp’s floor leaders in the Senate.

But opponents argued the changes would be too restrictive, causing students to start college with fewer class credits and more debt.

“The bottom line is students who are seeking higher education are going to end up with more debt,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.

The bill passed out of the Senate by a 34-18 vote.

Costs for the program allowing high-school students to take post-secondary classes swelled from around $23 million when the program was launched in 2015 to around $140 million in 2018. The bill would cap enrollment enough to keep the program within its roughly $100 million budget for this year, officials say.

The proposal would nix free college-level classes for freshman high schoolers and limit 10th graders to courses at technical schools unless they qualify for the state’s Zell Miller scholarship, which requires students to maintain a 3.7 grade point average or better.

Only upper-class students in the 11th and 12th grades could take classes at colleges and universities in Georgia. Currently enrolled students would not be affected if the bill is signed into law.

The legislation would also trim some course offerings to keep the focus more on helping students gain technical certificates for future jobs. Supporting lawmakers have pointed out the program’s tax-funded offerings have evolved beyond their original intent to include exercise classes like Zumba.

Because of changes the Senate Higher Education Committee made to the bill, it now must return to the House before gaining final passage.