Atlanta airport business owner sentenced in pay-for-play scheme

U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak

ATLANTA – A Georgia man has been sentenced to federal prison for bribing a city of Atlanta procurement official for a concessions contract at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Hayat Choudhary, of Lilburn, CEO of Atlanta Airport Shuttle Services Inc., pleaded guilty last May in connection with a contract to operate a restaurant at the airport’s Ground Transportation Building serving a growing number of taxi, limousine and rideshare drivers.

The company, also doing business as Meskerem Restaurant, won the contract in 2017 after Choudhary paid two $10,000 bribes to an Atlanta procurement official identified only as “Official 1.” Meskerem was one of two bidders for the contract.

“The public expects that government contracts are awarded solely based on merit,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “As the defendant learned, there are serious consequences for those who believe they can bribe their way into a contract. We will continue to vigorously investigate pay-to-play schemes at all levels of government.”

An ongoing federal investigation into alleged corruption at Atlanta City Hall during the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed predates the airport bribery case. Two contractors and a former chief procurement officer for the city have been sent to prison, while former Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard was indicted last week.

Choudhary was sentenced to one year and 10 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release by U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones.

Collins, Warnock nab endorsements from former Georgia governors

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (left), U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) are competing in the Nov. 3 special election.

Former Georgia governors are weighing in with endorsements in the campaign for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat ahead of the Nov. 3 special election.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican who served two terms from 2011 to 2019, is backing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins for the Senate seat over Loeffler, who current Gov. Brian Kemp appointed to hold retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat in December.

The endorsement pits Georgia’s most recent governor against its current one in a campaign that has emphasized intra-party schisms between many of the state’s most powerful Republican political leaders.

On the Democratic side, former President Jimmy Carter, who served as Georgia’s governor from 1971 to 1975, handed his support Tuesday to frontrunner Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, who has collected a pile of endorsements from top Democratic leaders and groups.

The endorsements come as the hotly contested Senate race heads down the final stretch with roughly a month left until Election Day, when nearly two dozen candidates from all parties will compete on the same ballot for Loeffler’s seat.

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, has waged an intense campaign against Collins, the four-term Gainesville congressman, preacher and fellow Republican who has polled neck-and-neck with Loeffler in recent weeks as each seeks to woo conservative voters.

Collins’ campaign has jabbed often at Loeffler’s use of her wealth to buy campaign ads and travel, a sentiment Deal echoed in his endorsement.

“I know that the governor had to make a tough choice, but I’ve made my choice too, and that’s Doug Collins,” Deal said in a statement. “A Senate seat representing the state of Georgia cannot be bought.”

Deal’s backing followed the endorsement of Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, for Collins earlier this month.

Loeffler’s campaign has previously dismissed criticism of her wealth and attacked Collins over his stint as a criminal defense attorney and record of voting in step with former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams on certain issues when both served in the state legislature.

More recently, Loeffler’s campaign drew headlines for releasing a pair of ads calling herself “more conservative” than the 5th-century warlord Attila the Hun. She has also pledged to vote in favor of President Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Warnock, who has climbed in the polls in recent weeks, also released a new ad Tuesday in which he urges Georgians to “try something different” and vote him into the Senate. He has vowed to vote against Trump’s court nominee and sought to elevate health care as among the top issues in the race.

The endorsement from Carter looks to solidify Warnock’s standing even further as the Democratic frontrunner amid calls for other Democratic candidates in the crowded race to drop out and consolidate support around him.

“Reverend Warnock knows the struggles Georgians are facing in this unique crisis — families losing health care, shuttered rural hospitals and record unemployment — all in the middle of a pandemic,” Carter said in a statement.

Health-care consultant Matt Lieberman, who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has rejected calls to exit the race.

A runoff will be held in January if none of the 21 candidates including Loeffler can win more than 50% of the vote in the Nov. 3 special election.

Georgia Power switching some of its vehicle fleet to electric

ATLANTA – Georgia Power Co. is converting portions of its vehicle fleet to run on electricity, the Atlanta-based utility announced Monday.

Switching to electric-powered minivans, SUVs, forklifts and all-terrain vehicles is in keeping with a plan by Georgia Power parent Southern Co. to switch 50% of its fleet to electric vehicles by 2030.

“Our company has long been committed to growing EV infrastructure across the state and supporting customers and businesses looking to go electric,” said Nicole Faulk, Georgia Power’s senior vice president for corporate and customer services.

“As Southern Company’s largest subsidiary, the electrification of Georgia Power’s fleet will play a significant role in helping us achieve this goal corporate-wide.”

In a news release, Georgia Power pointed to advances in EV technology that are extending the range of electric vehicles and improving overall performance. EVs also are better for the environment, and the costs of many electric vehicles have become competitive with those that run on gasoline.

To serve the growing number of EVs on Georgia highways, Georgia Power has installed 41 fast-chargers across the state that can add 100 miles to a charge in just 12 minutes. The utility plans to invest $6 million in fast-chargers during the next three years.

Georgia Power also offers EV charger rebates for residential and business customers. The company’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle rate offers lower prices from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. to encourage nighttime EV charging.

Feds fine flooring giant Interface for inflated earnings reports

ATLANTA – Atlanta-based commercial flooring company Interface Inc. agreed Monday to pay a $5 million fine stemming from a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into improper reporting of its quarterly earnings.

An order handed down by the SEC found Interface and two former executives with the company made unsupported manual accounting adjustments in 2015 and 2016, often when Interface’s internal forecasts indicated the company likely would fall short of analysts’ consensus estimates.

Those adjustments boosted the company’s income, making it possible for Interface to consistently report earnings that met or exceeded consensus estimates, according to the order.

The SEC’s actions against Interface and a Pennsylvania-based financial services company are the first arising from investigations generated by the federal agency’s Division of Enforcement EPS Initiative, which uses risk-based data analytics to uncover potential accounting and disclosure violations.

“Public company financial reporting should not present a misleading picture of performance,” said Stephanie Avakian, director of the SEC’s enforcement division. “As demonstrated by today’s actions, we will continue to leverage our internal data analysis tools to identify violators, including evidence of earnings management and other accounting or disclosure improprieties.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Interface, former Chief Financial Officer Patrick C. Lynch and Gregory J. Bauer, a former controller and chief accounting officer, agreed to cease and desist from future violations.

Lynch agreed to pay a fine of $75,000, and Bauer will pay $45,000. Both men also agreed to be suspended from appearing and practicing before the commission as accountants.

Absentee ballot tracking tool launched in Georgia for Nov. 3 election

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgians planning to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 general election have a new way to track the status of their absentee ballots after requesting one.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office has launched a new online tracking system called BallotTrax that lets voters sign up for text or email alerts on their ballot status.

“Creating this new absentee ballot tracking and notification system will provide Georgia voters with greater clarity and increased confidence that their votes are accepted,” Raffensperger said in a statement.

The website to sign up for alerts is here.

The new system comes after Raffensperger’s office launched an online portal to request absentee ballots last month. More than 200,000 people had used the request portal as of last Friday, Raffensperger said.

Around 1.2 million Georgians have been sent absentee ballots so far, marking a surge in vote-by-mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the tracking system, voters will receive a message when their absentee-ballot application is accepted, when the ballot itself is sent to a voter and whether the cast ballot is accepted or rejected, according to Raffensperger’s office.

Anyone whose mail-in ballot is rejected will be given instructions on how to correct the issue and make sure their vote is counted, Raffensperger’s office said.

Georgia is poised for record voter turnout in the Nov. 3 general election with a presidential contest, two U.S. Senate seats, congressional, state and local offices all on the ballot.

The new absentee-ballot online tools, combined with a push to recruit more poll workers and a separate online tool to track wait times in line on Election Day, aim to ease problems seen in the June 9 primaries when Georgians faced long lines and technical hiccups with voting machines.

Raffensperger in recent weeks has repeatedly expressed confidence the upcoming election will run as smoothly as possible despite the challenges of high voter turnout, new voting machines and the ongoing pandemic.

“We have a very robust plan of action for the November election cycle,” Raffensperger said last week. “I think we’re much better prepared.”