Georgia Oath Keeper pleads guilty in attack on U.S. Capitol

ATLANTA – A Georgia member of the right-wing anti-government group Oath Keepers pleaded guilty Friday to seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Brian Ulrich, 44, of Guyton, agreed to cooperate with the government’s ongoing investigation as part of the plea agreement, the U.S. Justice Department announced in a news release.

Ulrich admitted taking part in disrupting a joint session of Congress convened to count the Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election. The count was delayed for about six hours after riotous protesters took over parts of the Capitol building and lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the count, were whisked to safety.

Ulrich also admitted that from November 2020 through January 2021, he conspired with other Oath Keepers members and affiliates to plan the attack. He and others used encrypted and private communications, equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to use force to stop the transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

Ulrich purchased tactical gear and other items, including two-way radio receivers, a recon backpack, a tactical holster, a medical tourniquet, and a half-skull motorcycle helmet. On Jan. 4, he traveled with other Oath Keepers to Washington, D.C., staying in a downtown hotel.

On Jan. 6, after learning the Capitol had been breached, Ulrich and others traveled to the Capitol on golf carts and drove around multiple barricades, including marked law enforcement vehicles. He and others weaved through a restricted area in a military “stack” formation, with hands on shoulders, and marched in a line up the stairs on the east side of the Capitol.

The group entered the building and went toward the entrance to the Rotunda as law enforcement officers were attempting to clear the area. After officers deployed chemical-irritant spray, Ulrich left the Capitol and gathered with other co-conspirators about 100 feet from the building.

In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Ulrich continued to communicate with co-conspirators, urging them to “stay below the radar.”

Ulrich was arrested in Guyton last August. He was among 11 defendants indicted in January on seditious conspiracy and other charges.

Ulrich was the second Oath Keepers member to plead guilty to the charges. Joshua James, 34, of Arab, Ala., pleaded guilty in March.

Ulrich faces up to 20 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and up to 20 years for obstruction of an official proceeding, along with potential financial penalties. No sentencing date has been set.

In the 15 months since the Jan. 6 attack, nearly 800 people have been arrested in nearly all 50 states for crimes related to the breach of the Capitol. More than 250 are charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement officers.

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

Kemp signs bill providing needs-based college tuition grants

ATLANTA – College students needing a financial boost to complete their degrees will get help from the state under legislation Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law Friday.

Under House Bill 1435, students who have earned at least 80% of the credits required for the degree they are seeking will receive a grant of up to $2,500 to help pay their tuition.

The bill passed overwhelmingly on the last day of this year’s legislative session, with only one “no” vote in the state Senate and four in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Kemp thanked House Higher Education Committee Chairman Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, for introducing the bill.

“This marks the first needs-based education grant of its kind in Georgia,” the governor said Friday. “Chairman Martin deserves a great deal of credit for making a higher education degree just that much more affordable and attainable here in our state.”

To qualify for a grant, students must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application.

The Georgia Student Finance Commission will administer the program, subject to state appropriations.

The bill includes a sunset date of June 30, 2025, to let lawmakers determine whether the program is fulfilling its intended purpose of providing “gap” funding to help financially needy students graduate from college.

Kemp also signed legislation Friday authorizing the Technical College System of Georgia to create new and expand existing apprenticeship programs to train students to work in high-demand fields.

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

Sonny Perdue counting on executive experience in new role as university system chancellor

Sonny Perdue

ATLANTA – Sonny Perdue isn’t your typical University System of Georgia (USG) chancellor.

His two immediate predecessors – Steve Wrigley and Hank Huckaby – spent large portions of their careers in academia. Huckaby was a professor and later administrator at several USG institutions including the University of Georgia, while Wrigley served inside the system’s central office as executive vice chancellor of administration.

Perdue, a Republican, was Georgia’s governor for eight years and U.S. secretary of agriculture in the Trump administration for four more. He thinks that executive experience will stand him in good stead as he takes the helm at Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities.

“This is a big job,” Perdue said last Thursday, four weeks after succeeding Teresa MacCartney, an executive vice chancellor who had assumed the top role on an acting basis last summer when Wrigley retired. “It requires good judgment, wisdom in decision making, and the courage to carry out those decisions. … It doesn’t imply you have to be an academic to do that.”

To be fair, Perdue isn’t a novice when it comes to higher education. He chaired the state Senate Higher Education Committee during the 1990s, before his election in 2002 as Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

His tenure with the committee coincided with the launching of the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarships program, which incentivized Georgia’s top high school students to attend the university system’s top colleges instead of heading out of state.

“It was an exciting time as we saw the reputation of the University of Georgia almost skyrocket,” Perdue said.

But Perdue’s role under the Gold Dome in shaping higher education policy wasn’t enough to satisfy some students and faculty, who objected to his candidacy during the months-long process that led to his appointment by the university system Board of Regents in early March.

Last August, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to the regents warning against allowing politics to interfere in the choice of a new chancellor. The letter came after the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors accused Gov. Brian Kemp of appointing two new regents who favored Perdue’s appointment to the board and complaining about his lack of higher education experience.

Perdue pledged an inclusive approach to decision making, taking into account input from students and faculty.

“We won’t always agree,” he said. “But I have a responsibility when we don’t agree to give them a reason.”

Perdue said he isn’t entering his new role with preconceived goals or policies but is rather in the “assessment stage.”

One issue that is on his radar screen is the decline in enrollment portions of the university system reported last fall after seven consecutive years of growth.

Enrollment at the system’s state universities including Albany State, Savannah State and the University of North Georgia is down 3.7%, while the state colleges including Georgia Gwinnett, the College of Coastal Georgia and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College have seen enrollment fall by a more alarming 6.7%.

Perdue said the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has contributed to the decline. Another factor stemming in part from the pandemic is the growing demand for workers, he said.

“Young people, the traditional market for higher education, can walk out of high schools and get a job at $15, $20 or $25 an hour,” he said. “That sounds good to them. It’s instant gratification.”

But Perdue said settling for a job that does not require a college degree isn’t a recipe for long-term success.

“Our job is to put out the value of a four-year education over a lifetime,” he said.

To attract today’s generation of students, including adults with some college courses who didn’t finish, the university system is going to have to become more flexible, Perdue said. The system has begun that process with 439 online degree programs offering more than 10,000 courses.

“We’ve let [the University of] Phoenix take that market,” he said.

On other issues, Perdue said he supports changes in the post-tenure review policy the regents adopted last fall. The board voted to replace a system that permitted tenured professors to be fired only for a specific cause following a peer review with a system that allows dismissal if they fail to take corrective steps following two consecutive subpar reviews.

“We all need accountability,” Perdue said. “I’m accountable to the Board of Regents, the families, students and faculty, the legislature, the governor’s office.”

Perdue said he’s interested in resuming plans to overhaul the system’s core curriculum, a process that began in 2019 but was forced to the back burner by the pandemic.

“We’ve got to be more creative than naming a course ‘Something 101’ and having students memorize it,” he said. “We need to be teaching students the soft skills of problem-solving most will be using throughout their lives.”

The new chancellor said he hasn’t formed an opinion yet on efforts in the General Assembly in recent years to set quotas for offering early admission to the system’s top institutions to in-state students. The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech in particular have been become harder to get into with the increasing popularity of HOPE scholarships, crowding out some in-state students despite their high marks in high school.

“We’re going to get the data and look at the … mix of in-state and out-of-state [students],” Perdue said. “[But] out-of-state students bring value. We don’t want to get too possessive.”

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

Kemp, Raffensperger leading new primary poll heading into early voting

Gov. Brian Kemp (left) leads former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in a new poll of the Republican race for governor.

ATLANTA – A poll released Friday by SurveyUSA comes as good news for Gov. Brian Kemp and fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger heading into next week’s start of early voting for the May 24 primaries.

The online survey of 2,000 Georgia adults – including 1,587 registered voters – conducted April 22 through April 27 – found Kemp with a big lead over Republican challenger former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, 56% to 31%. Three other GOP gubernatorial candidates were in the low single digits, while just 8% were undecided.

If that margin holds up, Kemp would avoid the uncertainty of a June 21 runoff against Perdue and could immediately set his sights on a November rematch with Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams.

The same poll found Raffensperger leading his reelection bid over U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, 31% to 20%. Two other Republican candidates split 9% of the vote, while 40% were undecided.

Those results could set the stage for a runoff between Raffensperger and Hice, giving the challenger more time to play up former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of his candidacy. Trump has thrown his weight behind both Hice and Perdue because neither Raffensperger nor Kemp would go along with the then-president’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential race in Georgia that helped catapult Democrat Joe Biden into the White House.

Another Trump-endorsed candidate, University of Georgia football great Herschel Walker, is poised to easily win the U.S. Senate Republican primary for the right to face incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Walker enjoys a huge lead in all of the polls, including SurveyUSA’s, which put his support at 62%. His closest opponent is Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black with just 6%. Four other candidates combined for 10% of the vote, and 21% were undecided.

“Undecided” was the top vote-getter in down-ballot primary races included in the poll, with voters barely engaged in those races despite the start of early voting May 2.

In the Republican contest for lieutenant governor, state Senate President Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, held a thin lead over state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, 15% to 14%. Two other candidates were in the single digits, and 59% were undecided.

Over on the Democratic side of the ballot, former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall was the only candidate for lieutenant governor above single digits at 11% in a large field, with 62% of voters undecided. Hall also served a brief stint in Congress following the death of Rep. John Lewis in 2020.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, was the only Democrat running for secretary of state to hit double digits in the SurveyUSA poll, with 12% of the vote. In that contest, 60% were undecided.

The pool of adult survey respondents was weighted to U.S. Census targets for gender, age, race, education, and home ownership.

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

Rural hospital tax credit program gets clean bill of health

ATLANTA – Georgia’s rural hospital tax credit program has received such a positive audit that the report doesn’t recommend any improvements.

The annual evaluation of the tax credit by the Georgia Department of Audits & Accounts, released late Thursday, concluded that all participating hospitals, taxpayers and third parties are complying with the law that created the program to help struggling rural hospitals make ends meet.

The program brought in $59.4 million in contributions to eligible rural hospitals last year, the audit found, nearly hitting the annual cap of $60 million. Supporters in the General Assembly introduced legislation this year to raise the cap to $100 million but were forced to settle for $75 million.

Contributions have approached the $60 million cap during most years since the program was launched in 2016. However, donations fell to $46.5 million in 2019 after a change in federal law rendered individual taxpayers ineligible to receive an income tax deduction for charitable donations if they received a state tax credit for the same contribution.

Also, the 2019 audit found that donations to the program weren’t necessarily going to the neediest hospitals, a trend that continued the following year. In 2020, eight of the 10 neediest received less than the average collections of $970,000 per hospital, the audit found.  

Still, the 2020 audit concluded that both hospitals and taxpayers were complying with the law governing the tax credit. As a result, contributions in 2020 rebounded to $54.3 million.

The state Department of Community Health addressed the unequal distribution of contributions by steering all donations not designated for a specific hospital by donors to the neediest hospital on a list compiled by the state agency.

As a result, Dorminy Medical Center in Fitzgerald received all undesignated contributions until reaching the $4 million limit for donations to individual hospitals. Undesignated contributions were then directed to the second hospital on the list.

Based on a recommendation made in the 2020 audit report, the Georgia Department of Revenue implemented a new process to make sure corporate tax credits to the program were within legal limits.

The December 2020 audit found that while most 2019 taxpayer contributions to rural hospitals complied with state law, the Department of Audits & Accounts identified a small number of credits totaling about $96,000 that exceeded statutory limits. The revenue agency has adjusted the tax credits for those accounts, according to the 2021 audit.

The new audit also concluded that administrative fees the 56 rural hospitals that participate in the tax credit paid the Georgia HEART Hospital Program remained within the 3% limit set by state law. Georgia HEART contracts with the hospitals to market the program and process taxpayer contributions.

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