Arbery murder defendants hit with new federal charges

Gregory McMichael (left) and Travis McMichael (right) face new federal charges in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. (Glynn County Sheriff’s Office)

ATLANTA – The three white men accused of murdering Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick now face new federal charges as well.

Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan were indicted by a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Georgia Wednesday for hate crimes and the attempted kidnapping of Arbery, who was gunned down in February of last year.

The indictment also charges two of the men with separate counts of using firearms during the crime.

Two counts of the indictment accuse the men of using force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.

The two McMichaels are also charged with one count each of using, carrying, brandishing and – in Travis McMichael’s case – discharging a firearm in the commission of a violent crime.

Arbery, 25, was jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood when the McMichaels armed themselves, got into a pickup truck and chased Arbery, according to the indictment. They were able to use their truck to cut off his route.

Bryan is accused of joining the chase and using a second truck to further cut off Arbery.

The men told police they suspected Arbery of committing burglaries in the area, and they chased him down to question him.

All three defendants also are facing state charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. No trial date has been set in the state case.

The publicity surrounding Arbery’s killing set the stage for the long-awaited passage of a hate crimes law by the General Assembly last June. Georgia lawmakers followed up this year with a repeal of the state’s citizen’s arrest law.

The defendants in the Arbery case cited the citizen’s arrest statute in pleading not guilty to the state murder charges.

State Election Board meets after Georgia voting bill removes Raffensperger

Recently enacted law changes for Georgia elections have become a lightening rod for national debate on voter integrity following the 2020 election cycle. (Photo by Beau Evans)

The State Election Board held its first meeting Wednesday since Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly removed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s voting powers on the board.

Georgia’s recent controversial election legislation changing mail-in and early-voting requirements included a new rule stripping the secretary of state’s chairmanship of the board and giving state lawmakers authority to appoint its chair.

Vice Chairwoman Rebecca Sullivan led Wednesday’s board meeting in Raffensperger’s stead amid complaints from the board’s sole Democrat, David Worley, who panned the Republican-pushed election legislation as “completely ignorant” and driven by refuted claims of voter fraud.

A new nonpartisan board chair has not yet been picked by the General Assembly or approved by Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed the Republican-led elections bill in late March and has repeatedly touted the voting law changes as needed to bolster confidence in Georgia’s election system.

The elections bill, which passed along party lines last month, included dozens of rule changes such as tighter absentee voter identification, expands early-voting weekend hours and bans non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks within 150 feet of voters waiting in line outside precincts.

It also empowers the state board to suspend and temporarily replace up to four county or city election officials at any given time who are found to be performing poorly, pending a formal hearing to decide on disciplinary recommendations from an outside review panel.

Opponents have viewed that rule change as a potential way for local or state officials upset about an election’s outcome to overturn the results, similar to how then-President Donald Trump pressured Raffensperger to reverse Trump’s losing vote tally in Georgia in the 2020 general election.

Worley slammed the rule change Wednesday and pledged to oppose any future efforts aimed at interfering with county and city election offices that the five-member board might take up.

Defenders of tighter state oversight of local elections activities have pointed to officials in several areas such as Fulton County, which faced criticism over long lines outside polling places and slow turnaround of results during the 2020 cycle.

Georgia insurance commissioner draws Democratic challenger in 2022 election

Wilson King insurance
State Rep. Matthew Wilson (left) is running against Georgia Insurance Commissioner John King (right) in the 2022 elections. (Official state photos)

The field of Democratic candidates lining up to flip Republican-held state offices in Georgia for the 2022 election cycle has added another contender.

State Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, announced his candidacy Wednesday against Republican Insurance Commissioner John King, who was appointed in 2019 amid felony fraud charges brought against his predecessor.

Wilson, who is among the General Assembly’s few openly gay members, launched his campaign in a video on social media highlighting his experience battling insurance companies as a personal-injury attorney based in Atlanta.

He joins a growing roster of Democratic state lawmakers challenging Republican incumbents for lieutenant governor, attorney general and labor commissioner after Democrats flipped Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats and helped spur President Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 elections.

King, a U.S. Army National Guard major general and former Doraville police chief who is Georgia’s first Hispanic statewide officeholder, has spent much of his tenure helping Gov. Brian Kemp expand COVID-19 testing facilities and temporary overflow hospital beds.

King replaced former Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck, who was indicted on fraud and money laundering charges shortly after taking office in 2019 amid a federal investigation into allegations he stole more than $2 million from the Georgia Underwriting Association, where Beck had previously worked.

Running on the Democratic ticket with Wilson so far in the 2022 cycle are state Sen. Jen Jordan of Atlanta, who is vying to unseat Republican Attorney General Chris Carr, as well as state Reps. Erick Allen of Smyrna and Derrick Jackson of Tyrone, who are both competing for lieutenant governor.

Current Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s office has indicated he may not seek reelection in 2022, leaving the field potentially wide open for Republican primary contenders aiming to hold Georgia’s second-highest office.

Democratic state Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah has also thrown his hat in the ring to run against Republican Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

Not yet officially on the Democratic ticket is rising star Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial race and is expected to wage a rematch campaign in 2022.

The upcoming primary elections are set for May 24, 2022, and the general elections set for Nov. 8, 2022.

Former Georgia deputy pleads guilty in illegal firearms case

ATLANTA – A former deputy with the Wilkinson County Sheriff’s Office has pleaded guilty to possessing unregistered firearms following an FBI-led investigation into a violent extremist group.

Cody Richard Griggers, 28, of Montrose pleaded guilty to one count of possession of an unregistered firearm Monday in U.S. District Court in Macon. Griggers faces a maximum of 10 years in prison followed by three years of supervised release and a maximum fine of $250,000.

“This former law enforcement officer knew that he was breaking the law when he chose to possess a cache of unregistered weapons,” Acting U.S. Attorney Peter Leary said. “Coupled with his violent racially motivated extreme statements, the defendant has lost the privilege permanently of wearing the blue.”

As part of a California investigation into a man making violent political statements on social media, FBI agents discovered a group text with Griggers. In the text, he indicated that he was manufacturing and acquiring illegal firearms, explosives and suppressors.

Griggers also expressed viewpoints consistent with racially motivated violent extremism, including the use of racial slurs, slurs against homosexuals and making frequent positive references to the Nazi holocaust.

Agents executed a search warrant at Griggers’ home last November and searched his duty vehicle. They found multiple firearms inside the vehicle, including a machine gun with an obliterated serial number.

The machine gun had not been issued to Griggers, and he was not allowed to have the weapon in his law enforcement car.

An unregistered short-barrel shotgun was found in Griggers’ home. In all, between his residence and duty vehicle, officers found 11 illegal firearms.

“All law enforcement officers swear an oath to uphold the law and protect each and every citizen they serve,” said Chris Hacker, special agent in Charge of the FBI’s Atlanta office. “Griggers clearly violated his oath with his egregious actions and has no place in law enforcement.”   

The FBI worked with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and with the Wilkinson County Sheriff’s Office in investigating the case.

Griggers is scheduled to be sentenced on July 6. He was detained at his pretrial hearing and remains in custody.

New broadband project to serve seven rural Georgia counties

ATLANTA – The 4,800 members of Middle Georgia EMC will be the latest to benefit from a series of broadband projects cropping up across rural Georgia.

The utility, which serves all or parts of seven counties, announced Tuesday it will invest $36.7 million with Kansas City-based Conexon Connect to bring high-speed internet fiber to 100% of its members’ homes and businesses within two years. The first customers will be connected as early as the first quarter of next year.

“We grew up with a party line telephone and one-channel TV,” Randy Crenshaw, president and CEO of Middle Georgia EMC, said during a ceremony in the Dooly County seat of Vienna announcing the project. “Now, we’re introducing high-speed broadband.”

Expanding deployment of broadband service in rural Georgia has been a bipartisan priority of the state’s political leaders.

The General Assembly passed legislation two years ago clarifying in state law that electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) are legally permitted to attach internet fiber to their utility poles.

Then last year, lawmakers approved a bill giving the state Public Service Commission (PSC) the task of deciding how much the EMCs could charge telecommunications providers for pole attachments. In December, the commission approved an offer by the EMCs to charge only $1 per year during the next six years for new pole attachments in rural areas lacking broadband service.

The state is also stepping up the investment of public dollars in rural broadband. Between them, the fiscal 2021 mid-year budget and the fiscal 2022 spending plan the General Assembly adopted during this year’s legislative session earmarked $30 million for rural broadband projects.

While state and local policy makers have long recognized the need for expanding broadband connectivity in rural communities, the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the point by forcing students out of classrooms to try to learn at homes without internet, said Jason Shaw, a member of the PSC representing South Georgia.

“The pandemic has truly painted the ‘digital divide’ picture our kids are going through,” he said. “They deserve to be able to do the same things as kids in metro Atlanta.”

Jonathan Chambers, a partner with Conexon, said bringing broadband service to rural areas will help stem population losses those communities have suffered in recent years.

“You need infrastructure for people to have job opportunities, in order to get education, in order to get today’s health care,” he said.

Conexon Connect will build a 1,900-mile fiber network providing high-speed internet access to Middle Georgia EMC members in Dooly, Houston, Macon, Pulaski, Turner, Wilcox and Ben Hill counties.

The Middle Georgia EMC project is the third Conexon has underway in the Peach State.

Earlier this month, Conexon and Washington EMC announced a $54.5 million plan to bring broadband to more than 12,000 homes in Baldwin, Emanuel, Glascock, Hancock, Jefferson, Johnson, Laurens, Warren, Washington and Wilkinson counties.

Last February, Conexon unveiled a $210 million project to serve all 80,000 customers of Central Georgia EMC and Southern Rivers Energy in all or parts of 18 counties.

Shaw said 15 EMCs across Georgia are either forming partnerships with fiber-optic companies to expand broadband service or are working on feasibility studies that could lead to future projects.

“We’ve made a lot of strides,” he said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”