Biden pardons one Georgian, commutes sentences of seven others

President Joe Biden

ATLANTA – President Joe Biden pardoned an Athens man Tuesday and commuted the prison sentences of seven other Georgians, all non-violent drug offenders, in the first acts of clemency of his presidency.

Dexter Eugene Robinson, 52, was convicted in 2002 of using his business as a front for the distribution of marijuana. While he wasn’t personally involved in trafficking the drug, he allowed dealers to use his pool hall for drug transactions, according to a statement from the White House.

Since being released from prison, Robinson has launched a cellphone repair service and hired local high school students. He also has worked to build and renovate houses in a community that lacks affordable housing.

Biden commuted the sentences of seven other Georgians still behind bars including:

  • Tellas Levallas Kennedy of Glennville, sentenced to 210 months in prison in 2013 for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. The sentence was later reduced to 168 months behind bars.
  • Carry Le of Duluth, sentenced to 120 months in prison in Texas for conspiracy with intent to distribute marijuana plants.
  • Stephanie McMurphy of Adel, sentenced to 102 months for distribution of methamphetamine within 1,000 feet of a school.
  • Ricky Norton and Sharon Ann Norton of Augusta, each sentenced to 120 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
  • Tony Lee Stanfield of Villa Rica, sentenced to 120 months for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
  • Courtney Donnell Zeno of Warner Robins, sentenced to life in prison in Louisiana in 2010 for distribution of cocaine base. The sentence was later reduced to 240 months behind bars.

In each case, the commuted sentence will expire April 26 of next year, with the remainder of the sentence to be served in home confinement.

“America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation,” Biden said in a statement. “Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities.”

In all, Biden pardoned three Americans and commuted the sentences of 73.

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

Military housing contractor at Fort Gordon draws fire at U.S. Senate hearing

ATLANTA – One of the nation’s leading providers of privatized military housing is failing to make needed repairs and respond to environmental hazards inside homes at Fort Gordon, witnesses told a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday.

A former resident of the Army base near Fort Gordon described how his daughter suffers from a dangerous form of dermatitis brought on by exposure to mold while her family was living in a home built by Balfour Beatty Communities.

“Her skin, once youthful and supple, is now reptilian in nature,” Capt. Samuel Choe told members of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. “This is a potential lifelong condition and a potential fatal condition. … How do you explain to an eight-year-old child why she should have to endure something like that?”

The committee launched an investigation into the condition of privatized military housing at Fort Gordon and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas after Ossoff visited families housing at Fort Gordon last year.

“The stories that I heard shocked me,” he said. “I heard stories about maintenance requests that were ignored, maintenance requests that were never followed up on – not just routine maintenance, but maintenance that impacted the health and safety of our service members and their families living in their homes.”

Balfour Beatty, a multinational company based in the United Kingdom, operates more than 43,000 on-base homes at 55 military bases in 26 states serving about 150,000 residents. The company pleaded guilty last December to committing major fraud against the U.S. government from 2013 to 2019 by falsifying work orders and was ordered to pay $65.4 million in fines and restitution.

But an eight-month investigation by the Senate subcommittee at the two bases released Tuesday to coincide with the investigation revealed Balfour Beatty has continued the same practices that led to the guilty plea, including ignoring or delaying responses to urgent requests from military families to address conditions such as mold and leaking roofs.

Rachel Christian, cofounder of the organization Armed Forces Housing Advocates, said the problem exists at military bases across the country.

“I have seen mold, lead, asbestos and raw sewage improperly handled,” she said.

“Military families make sacrifices every day,” added Jana Wanner, who spent two stints living at Fort Gordon with her husband, a sergeant 1st class, and two children. “A safe home should not be one of them.”

Richard Taylor, president of facility operations, renovation and construction at Balfour Beatty, defended the company before the subcommittee. He said Balfour Beatty has instituted changes since the guilty plea, including putting in place a formal process for resolving complaints.

“The overwhelming majority of our residents are happy with the homes we provide,” Taylor said. “We’re not perfect. We understand what our shortcomings are, and we’ve taken action to correct our deficiencies.”

But Ossoff hammered away at the subcommittee’s findings that Balfour Beatty has continued to draw complaints even after entering the guilty plea.

“Why should a company convicted of major criminal fraud against the United States government remain in a position of trust?” Ossoff asked Taylor. “Why should we believe your assurances?”

Christian suggested ending the military’s partnership with Balfour Beatty would be the only way to ensure the health and safety of military families.

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

Kemp signs public safety package

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp signed a package of public safety bills Monday, one day after he and Republican primary challenger former U.S. Sen. David Perdue clashed over the crime issue during a televised debate.

“Public safety is the No.-1 responsibility of the government,” Kemp said during a signing ceremony in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, an area he called an “epicenter” of growing crime.

“The rise in crime we’ve been facing in many communities across Georgia due to soft-on-crime policies and officials is unacceptable to me, it’s unacceptable to our law enforcement and it’s certainly unacceptable to the people that we serve,” he said.

Among the bills Kemp signed was legislation giving Georgia’s attorney general the authority to prosecute gang activity along with local prosecutors.

“Gangs do not confine their activities to one jurisdiction,” he said. “When they traffic drugs, illegal weapons and people, they don’t stop at county lines.”

The governor also signed bills allowing suspected child molesters to be charged separately for each image of child pornography or incident of child molestation and allowing separate charges for each illegal firearm seized from a suspect.

Another part of the package Kemp signed Monday increases penalties for fleeing or eluding law enforcement. And he signed a workforce development measure providing tuition reimbursement to former service members who enroll in training to become a law enforcement officer.

The governor also touted investments in law enforcement in the fiscal 2023 budget the General Assembly adopted this month, including a $5,000 pay raise for state law enforcement personnel, the addition of a new state trooper class and the addition of law enforcement and criminal justice to the high-demand degree programs that quality for tuition breaks.

“We will use every resource at our disposal to rid our communities of crime and keep Georgia families safe,” Kemp said.

During Sunday night’s debate, Perdue blamed Kemp for the rising crime rate in Georgia by not hiring enough state troopers. Perdue said North Carolina has twice as many troopers as Georgia, although the states are roughly equal in population.

“If we don’t get crime and education fixed, we are not going to have economic development,” Perdue said.

Kemp responded by citing the successes of the multi-agency Crime Suppression Unit he formed in April of last year, including the arrests of 745 suspects on outstanding warrants – 26 on murder charges.

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

Kemp, Perdue trade blows in first televised debate of Republican gubernatorial race

Gov. Brian Kemp (left) is being challenged by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp defended his record of the last four years Sunday night against withering attacks from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the first televised debate of this year’s Republican gubernatorial campaign.

Perdue, who has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, accused Kemp of failing to investigate allegations of voter fraud after what he called a “rigged and stolen” 2020 election in Georgia. He blamed the governor not only for President Joe Biden’s victory but for the loss of his Senate seat to Democrat Jon Ossoff.

“He sold us out,” Perdue declared in the debate, which aired on Atlanta’s WSB-TV.

“The only reason I’m not in the United States Senate is you caved in,” Perdue told Kemp.

After responding that he followed the law and the U.S. Constitution following the election, Kemp chastised Perdue for focusing so much attention on the last election cycle. Instead, the governor cited his accomplishments in going after criminals, creating jobs and reopening Georgia’s economy during the pandemic earlier than other states.

“That is a record that will beat [presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee] Stacey Abrams, not looking in the rear-view mirror,” Kemp said.

Both candidates supported legislation the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed this year allowing Georgians to carry concealed firearms without a permit and restricting how certain “divisive concepts” including racism can be taught in the schools.

But they clashed over the state’s strategy in luring electric vehicle startup Rivian to invest $5 billion in a truck manufacturing plant east of Atlanta that will create 7,500 jobs. Perdue criticized the use of generous tax incentives to convince the company to come to Georgia, suggesting a better approach to economic development would be to eliminate the state income tax.

“You’re taking hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in Georgia and giving them to a company owned by [billionaire and Democratic mega donor George] Soros,” Perdue said.

Kemp shot back that the Rivian deal was part of a successful effort he has waged to boost the economy of rural Georgia. The governor accused Perdue, on the other hand, of sending American jobs overseas during decades as a corporate CEO.

“We’re bringing in 7,500 great-paying jobs to rural parts of our state,” Kemp said. “He’s spent his whole business career outsourcing jobs to China.”

Perdue criticized the governor for not taking a position on a bill calling for a vote on whether the Buckhead area of Atlanta should break away and form its own city, legislation that ultimately fizzled. He tied the push for cityhood to rising crime in Atlanta.

“These people have no service up there,” Perdue said. “The only way they’re going to get there is to control their own government.”

Kemp said he decided to keep his “powder dry” on the issue.

“As much as you want me to be a dictator, I’m not,” the governor told Perdue. “That’s something that is going to have to go through the legislative process.”

The two also clashed on the issue of crime, with Perdue hammering away at statistics illustrating the increase in violent crime, particularly in Atlanta, since the pandemic began.

“What we have is a runaway crime situation the governor is burying his head about,” Perdue said.

Kemp responded by citing the number of arrests made by the multi-agency Crime Suppression Unit he formed in the spring of last year.

“We have taken stolen weapons off the street,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do that.”

Kemp and Perdue will meet twice more on the airwaves before the May 24 primary, later this week in Savannah and Sunday night on Georgia Public Television.

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

Kemp’s plan for medical cannabis could lead to do-over for license applicants

ATLANTA – Advocates for Georgia’s dead-in-the-water medical marijuana program hope a new initiative will finally start providing cannabis oil to patients more than three years after the General Assembly legalized the industry.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced last Tuesday that he was appointing Sid Johnson, a former commissioner at the Georgia Department of Administrative Services (DOAS), board chairman of the state commission that oversees the program. In addition, Kemp directed $150,000 from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to expedite the hearing of legal protests filed by companies whose applications for licenses to produce cannabis oil were rejected.

Kemp’s initiative came after the state Senate tabled a House bill aimed at restarting the cannabis oil program on the final night of this year’s legislative session.

“I think this is a start,” said Georgia Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, who carried the measure in the Senate. “He’s heading in the right direction.”

Efforts to legalize the production of cannabis oil in Georgia for patients suffering from a range of diseases go back seven years.

Lawmakers passed a bill in 2015 legalizing possession of low-THC cannabis oil. But the law didn’t provide a legal means of obtaining the drug, forcing adult patients and parents of children with seizure disorders and other maladies to go out of state for the product or buy it illegally in Georgia.

The General Assembly sought to resolve that issue in 2019, passing a bill that legalized growing marijuana in Georgia under close supervision and converting the leafy crop into low-THC cannabis oil. The law put in place a licensing process for companies interested in taking part in the program and created the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee it.

The commission issued a request for proposals a year later and received 69 applications for the six licenses the legislation authorized.

Following a lengthy review, the commission issued tentative licenses to six winning companies last summer. That’s when a program already plagued by fits and starts bogged down completely.

Sixteen of the companies denied licenses filed legal protests alleging the selection process was unfair and arbitrary. Some legislators who followed the scoring of applicants agreed with that assessment.

“It was terrible,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, who has played a leading role in trying to straighten out the program. “Some of the [winning] companies shouldn’t have been eligible.”

Powell introduced legislation in February aimed at heading off the potential for lengthy litigation by the 16 protesting companies by increasing the number of licenses to be awarded from six to 22.

“If you compare Georgia to every other state that has medical cannabis, Georgia should have 22 licenses,” he said. “That circumvents any lawsuit.”

But opening the program to that many licenses wouldn’t fly with leadership in either the House or Senate. After the two chambers passed their own separate bills, a legislative conference committee negotiated a final version calling for the awarding of three additional licenses.

The legislation also provided for a do-over on the original six licenses, with the Department of Administrative Services doing the evaluating rather than the commission. Any ensuing legal protests of the DOAS awards would be heard by the Office of State Administrative Hearings, with appeals to be heard by the Georgia Statewide Business Court.

The House passed the conference committee report on the last night of the session. But when it got over to the Senate, it was tabled by a single vote.

House Speaker David Ralston said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“I thought we had a product in the House that would meet with the approval of the Senate,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “It’s a real tragedy that we’re three years down the road from passing this bill and will still don’t have this oil for these families.”

Kemp is trying to pick up the pieces with his plan to appoint a new board chairman for the commission and put up $150,000 to expedite hearings of legal protests.

“It’s very similar to some of the legislation we had been considering,” Watson said. “It’s his way of saying, ‘Let’s get these hearings done, get the seeds in the ground and the oil to the kids.’ “

In Johnson, Kemp has picked a board chairman with experience in government procurement, the issue at the heart of what’s troubling the medical cannabis program. The original board chairman was a physician without that kind of expertise.

“Mr. Johnson brings a certain skill set,” Kemp spokeswoman Katie Byrd said. “He’s going to be a good asset.”

Chuck Clay, a lawyer representing Pure Peach Therapeutics, one of the companies protesting the earlier licensing process, called the governor’s plan a step forward. But he said Kemp’s plan will only keep the protesting parties out of court if it’s done the right way.

“We want to see all the scores regraded,” Clay said. “That’s the quickest way to get to an outcome. … I’m a wait-and-see guy. We’ll see how that occurs.”

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