Study: Medicaid dominated federal grants to Georgia early in pandemic

ATLANTA – Medicaid accounted for the largest share of federal grant funding to Georgia during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, with COVID-19 aid a close second, according to a new study.

The report from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 37% of the federal grants that went to Georgia during fiscal 2020 were to support the joint state-federal Medicaid program. Another 5% came in the form of other federal aid for health care.

COVID-19 assistance accounted for 31% of Georgia’s federal grants.

More than 40 states had a similar experience, with COVID-19 grants second only to federal Medicaid assistance.

Overall, the report found a 37% increase in federal grants to states during the early months of the pandemic compared to fiscal 2019, the largest jump in federal aid since 2009, when Congress approved a massive stimulus package to jolt the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession.

Georgia and Hawaii were tied for 10th lowest among the states in the share of federal grant dollars going to Medicaid in fiscal 2020. The scale ranged from a low of 12% for Wyoming to 60% for New York and Kentucky, according to the study.

Georgia’s Medicaid program has been a bone of contention between Republicans and Democrats. GOP Gov. Brian Kemp submitted a proposal to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last year for a limited expansion of Medicaid, which was approved by the Trump administration.

However, the incoming Biden administration put that plan on hold over concerns it would include a work requirement for Medicaid recipients.   

Georgia Democrats are calling for a full-blown Medicaid expansion that would cover more low-income Georgians. All but 12 states have fully expanded Medicaid.

The Build Back Better bill now before the U.S. Senate would allow people in states that have not approved a full Medicaid expansion to purchase subsidized coverage. However, opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is threatening to kill the legislation.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia man pleads guilty to running nationwide tax fraud scheme

ATLANTA – A Georgia man pleaded guilty Wednesday to promoting a tax fraud scheme to more than 200 participants in 19 states.

Iran V. Backstrom, also known as Shariyf Noble, of Milledgeville also pleaded guilty to helping others prepare and file false tax returns for people recruited to the scheme.

According to court documents, Backstrom was the main promoter of the scheme, which involved recruiting clients and preparing false tax returns on their behalf by convincing them their mortgages and other debts entitled them to tax refunds.

He and his co-conspirators held seminars across the country between 2014 and 2016 to publicize the scheme.  

Backstrom helped prepare and file tax returns for the participants, which collectively sought more than $25 million in refunds from the Internal Revenue Service.

The returns falsely claimed that banks and other financial institutions had withheld large amounts of income tax from the participants, thereby entitling them to a refund. In reality, the financial institutions had not paid or withheld any taxes from those involved in the scheme.

As part of his plea, Backstrom admitted he gave orders to others as part of the scheme. Several of his co-conspirators had previously pleaded guilty for their roles.

Backstrom further admitted he and his co-conspirators charged participants $10,000 to $15,000 for preparation of each tax return. Although Backstrom personally received $1 million for his role in the scheme, he did not file tax returns for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 to report the income.

Backstrom faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for conspiring to defraud the United States and three years in prison for each of the seven counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation and filing of a false tax return. He also faces a period of supervised release, restitution and monetary penalties.

A U.S. district court judge will schedule sentencing for a later date.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Judge dismisses indictment of Trey Kelley in fatal hit-and-run crash

Georgia Rep. Trey Kelley

ATLANTA – A judge has dismissed an indictment charging Georgia Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, in connection with a fatal hit-and-run crash in 2019.

Kelley was charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, for failing to call law enforcement immediately after Ryan Dover, the driver charged in the accident, contacted Kelley to inform him of the crash.

Dover’s vehicle allegedly struck and killed Erick Keais, who was riding a bicycle on Main Street in Cedartown. Dover still faces charges in the accident.

In a 12-page ruling Tuesday, Senior Judge Stephen Schuster noted that Kelley was not directly involved in the crash. In addition, the judge wrote that the indictment, even if true, did not accuse Kelley of any actions that constitute a crime.

“There is no authority either through statutory enactment or the common law, that imposes a duty on a non-driving and non-present third party to call the police upon learning of a potential automobile accident,” Schuster wrote.

“To follow the state’s position in this case, every driver passing by a collision on the roadway must now ‘immediately’ contact 911 or they have committed a crime. The legal authority for this proposition, however, does not exist in the hit-and-run statute or anywhere else.”

Kelley was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2012 in a district that includes all of Polk County and portions of Bartow and Haralson counties. He rose to majority whip but stepped down from leadership last summer to focus on the hit-and-run case.

The prosecution is considering whether to appeal Tuesday’s ruling.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Temporary restraining order blocks Spaceport Camden for now

ATLANTA – Opponents of a planned commercial spaceport in Camden County will get a chance after the holidays to make their case.

A judge in Glynn County granted a temporary restraining order Tuesday blocking Camden County from buying the 4,000-acre tract intended as the site of Spaceport Camden.

County officials said Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett’s ruling doesn’t change any plans for the spaceport.

“Camden County never intended to purchase the Spaceport Camden property before the holidays,” Spaceport Camden spokesman John Simpson said. “The decision by Judge Scarlett moves this issue past the holiday season, and we look forward to presenting our side to the court at that time.”

Scarlett has scheduled a hearing on Jan. 5 to take up a motion for a permanent restraining order blocking the project.

Camden officials have been working on the planned spaceport for more than five years. They gained a major victory on Monday when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order approving a launch site operator license for Spaceport Camden.

Supporters have touted the project as a major jobs generator. The spaceport has been endorsed by Gov. Brian Kemp and most of Georgia’s congressional delegation.

But opponents say firing small rockets from Spaceport Camden over populated areas of Little Cumberland Island would pose a major safety risk. They cite documents submitted by the county that project a likely 20% failure rate for the small rockets that would be launched from the spaceport.

Other interested parties that have expressed reservations over the project include the National Park Service – which operates the Cumberland Island National Seashore – officials at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base at Kings Bay and environmental organizations worried about the spaceport’s impact on a fragile coastal ecosystem.

The court case is being waged by opponents looking to force a voter referendum on the purchase of the launch site property.

Monday’s “record of decision” issued by the FAA isn’t the final say on Spaceport Camden. If the project survives the court challenge and moves forward, each launch would have to be approved separately.

Camden County is planning up to 12 launches per year from the spaceport.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Kemp takes aim at another federal vaccine mandate

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosted a mass COVID-19 vaccine site this year.. (Mercedes-Benz Stadium photo)

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr are challenging a fourth Biden administration mandate related to the coronavirus pandemic.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday challenges an executive order issued late last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requiring all staff associated with any programs funded through Head Start as well as certain of the program’s contractors and volunteers to wear masks and get vaccinated.

The mandate includes some programs administered by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.

“This is just the latest and most egregious in a growing list of overreaches by this president,” Kemp said. “As with our prior lawsuits against the administration’s unwarranted and inappropriate decisions, we will not rest in this fight to protect the rights and choices of Georgia’s families, especially when it comes to our youngest citizens.

“We will not allow these policies to invade our classrooms, teaching the wrong lessons about the role of government to growing minds.”

“The federal government is attempting to force Georgia families to choose between two equally problematic outcomes – either give up their right to make their own health-care decisions or risk their child’s education,” Carr added.

“This unlawful power grab is merely the latest example of a disturbing pattern emerging in this administration, and we will continue to fight back to protect our state and our citizens.”

All employees affected by the mandate must get vaccinated by Jan. 31. Also, Head Start children two years of age and older must begin wearing masks immediately.

Bernardine Futrell, director of the Office of Head Start, said the mandate not only will enhance safety but protect the program from disruptions that affect the program’s quality.

“Many programs have shared first-hand experience on how intermittent closures disrupt children’s opportunities for learning, socialization, nutrition, continuity and routine,” she said. “Program closures also impact the ability of Head Start families to work, which ultimately creates instability and adds to their stress.”

Kemp also has joined other Republican governors in suing the Biden administration over vaccine mandates imposed on federal contractors, health-care workers and businesses with 100 or more employees.

This story is  available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.