Former Statesboro councilman headed to prison for tax evasion

ATLANTA – A former Statesboro city councilman was sentenced to 33 months in prison Monday for evading taxes on income from bars he co-owned.

Will Britt, a member of the council from 2004 through 2015 now living in Bluffton, South Carolina, and a group of business partners owned various bars near college campuses in several Georgia communities, while claiming each bar was owned by a single individual, according to court documents and statements in federal court.

He and the other co-owners skimmed cash from the bars and disbursed it among themselves in accordance with their ownership percentages without reporting that income to the IRS.

To complete the fraud scheme, Britt personally ensured that some of the nominal owners of the bars filed false tax returns. He also provided false information to an accountant who prepared tax returns related to some of the businesses.

Specifically, Britt misrepresented the businesses’ true ownership, underreported the bars’ income, and omitted cash distributions to the owners. This conduct enabled him and the other true owners of the bars to file tax returns that omitted their full income tax liabilities.

In addition to the prison term, Chief Judge J. Randal Hall of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia ordered Britt to serve three years of supervised release and pay more than $352,000 in restitution.

Britt pleaded guilty to the charges in April.

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


Kemp allocates $62 million to address homelessness and housing insecurity

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday that his office will provide $62 million to help Georgia communities address homelessness and housing insecurity.

The governor’s office will award the funds to 20 organizations who applied via a competitive process. The funds will be used to build affordable housing, improve existing housing, and provide mental health services to people who are homeless.

“As Georgians faced the unprecedented challenges and economic downturn of the pandemic, COVID-19 robbed some of their financial stability, expanding the homeless population in vulnerable communities,” said Kemp. “Those who were already homeless faced even greater difficulties, with many already struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.”

“By investing these funds in those who are already making a difference around our state on these fronts, we will provide those most in need with resources that will aid them on the road to personal and financial recovery,” Kemp said.

“I’m thrilled to see a number of Georgia ACT [Advancing Communities Together] members receiving funding for affordable housing development,” said Bambie Hayes-Brown, the president and CEO of Georgia ACT, a statewide coalition of affordable housing groups.

“We know the work that our mission-based developers do is very important to providing housing opportunities for the lowest income of Georgians,” said Hayes-Brown.

Hayes-Brown said Georgia ACT members awarded funding include Mercy Housing Southeast, Quest Community Development, and SUMMECH Community Development. These groups all work to provide affordable housing, mostly in the Atlanta area.

“We would like to see more outreach to those small mission-based developers outside of metro Atlanta and [those groups] also given technical assistance to apply,” said Hayes-Brown.

Some of the other groups awarded funding include Habitat for Humanity organizations in Athens, Troup County, and Houston County.

The funds come from federal COVID relief funds provided to the state under the American Rescue Plan Act. Additional grants will be awarded this fall to groups working to help homeless Georgians, said Andrew Isenhour, a spokesman for the governor.

A spokesman for Democrat Stacey Abrams – who is challenging Kemp for the governorship in November – criticized Kemp’s announcement.

“Kemp has repeatedly railed against spending that he’s now trying to claim credit for – even as housing costs continue to skyrocket on his watch with no response from him but election year gimmicks,” said Alex Floyd for the campaign.

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

Fulton judge orders Kemp to testify in probe of Trump’s election interference

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert C.I. McBurney

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp will have to testify before the special grand jury investigating former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in
Georgia, a Fulton County judge ruled Monday.

But the governor won’t have to appear in court until after the November elections, Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert C.I. McBurney declared.

In a six-page decision that followed a hearing last week, McBurney rejected Kemp’s
argument that the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity” shields him from being
forced to testify in what he termed a civil proceeding.

The sovereign immunity doctrine prohibits the government from being sued without
its consent.

McBurney ruled that sovereign immunity does not apply in this case because it doesn’t
involve a lawsuit against the state and because the special grand jury is not conducting a civil investigation.

“Its purpose is unquestionably and exclusively to conduct a criminal investigation,” McBurney wrote. “Its convening was sought by the elected official who investigates,
lodges, and prosecutes criminal charges in this [judicial] circuit; its convening order specifies its purpose as the investigation of possible criminal activities; and its final output is a report recommending whether criminal charges should be brought.”

Kemp volunteered to testify before the special grand jury late last month. But after back-and-forth negotiations over what should be the topics of the governor’s testimony, Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis issued a subpoena to Kemp early this month.

Trump and his Republican allies in Georgia – claiming widespread voter fraud that was subsequently disproven – demanded that Kemp call a special session of the legislature to put up an alternate slate of electors after Democrat Joe Biden defeated the incumbent president in Georgia in November 2020.

Kemp refused, declaring the law and the Constitution gave him no legal right to intervene in the ertification of Biden’s victory in Georgia.

McBurney acknowledged in his ruling that the questioning of the governor concerning
certain “conversations of interest” in which Kemp participated will be limited to areas that don’t involve attorney-client privilege.

The judge also declared Kemp will not have to appear before the special grand jury until
after the Nov. 8 elections.

“The governor is in the midst of a reelection campaign,” McBurney wrote. “This criminal grand jury investigation should not be used by the district attorney, the governor’s
opponent, or the governor himself to influence the outcome of that election.”

“Judge McBurney acknowledged the potential political impact of the timing of these
proceedings and correctly paused the governor’s involvement until after the November election,” the governor’s office responded following Monday’s ruling.

“Just as we have since April 2021, we will work with the DA’s office and the judge to
ensure a full accounting of the governor’s limited role in the issues being investigated is available to the special grand jury.”

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






Homelessness a problem in rural Georgia

ATLANTA – Though many associate homelessness with urban centers, the problem of lack of housing is more widespread, speakers said at a recent state Senate hearing on homelessness.   

Rising rental prices and wages that have not kept up have pushed some Georgians out of their homes, experts and local observers alike affirmed.  

Federal data shows that there are around 10,000 homeless people in Georgia. Around one-third of those people are located outside of Georgia’s cities.   

A person would need to earn $14.24 an hour to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment outside of Georgia’s cities, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s nearly double Georgia’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.  

Georgia is short by around 207,000 affordable and accessible rental units, according to the group. 

The housing crunch is not always as visible in rural Georgia as in Atlanta, said Dr. Bambie Hayes-Brown, CEO of Georgia Advancing Communities Together, a statewide coalition of affordable housing groups. 

But the problem is real in rural areas, too.   

Hayes-Brown’s organization sponsored a series of meetings around South Georgia to learn more about people’s experiences.  

“People are doubling and tripling up,” she said, referring to a practice where families or individuals share housing in close quarters to help make ends meet.  

Some people also live in tent encampments in forested or other out-of-the-way places in rural Georgia, she said. 

Another concern is the lack of emergency shelters and other places for people to live when getting back on their feet, Hayes-Brown said.  

There are around 3,000 emergency shelter and transitional housing beds and around 3,600 more permanent supportive housing spots in Georgia outside of the larger cities, according to the latest data from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But those supports are not always available where and when they are needed.  

Cedartown in Northwest Georgia lacks a true homeless shelter, said John Winecoff of Community Share Ministries

Winecoff runs a small, specialized program to help men get on their feet – but that can’t stem the tide Cedartown is seeing.  

“Recently, we’ve had an upsurge of homeless people,” Winecoff said. “Places to live … have become unaffordable.”

There’s also a lack of jobs in the area. Some homeless people are struggling with addictions to opioids, alcohol, or methamphetamines. Others are just passing through, often on their way to Atlanta, and get stuck in the area, Winecoff said. 

“There’s not many resources for someone to turn to in Cedartown,” he said. “Some have no choice but to sleep in the woods.”  

Winecoff said many homeless people lack basic identification documents that would help them get services or find a job, so his organization tries to help.   

“There’s no way to get [an ID]” if you live in the woods, he said. 

Small cities are facing similar problems, said Gainesville Chief of Police Jay Parrish, who has noticed an uptick in homelessness over the past three to five years.  

“In simple economics, the increased demand for housing coupled with a decreased supply created a higher market price for housing,” Parrish said. “Affordable housing is more difficult to come by. This has left many of our population homeless.” 

Parrish’s police department and community groups are acutely aware of the problem, he said, and they work together to connect people with resources.  

Yet so far there’s been no magic-bullet fix to the root problem, the lack of affordable housing, Parrish said. 

Far to the south, in Fitzgerald, Lethia Kittrell said people are sleeping in public places, camping in the woods, and staying in a local homeless camp.  

Kittrell, CEO of the nonprofit Fitzgerald for Change and a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives, said her area lacks resources to address the problem, and she wants to fix that.  

An influx of people from larger cities attracted by low – at least, to them – housing prices is contributing to the housing shortage, Kittrell said. 

Even substandard units are much more costly than they used to be, Kittrell said, and she’s “majorly concerned” about safety in some housing units. Some people are struggling to meet higher energy bills and housing costs at the same time.  

And Kittrell said there are many eviction cases pending in the courts.  

Both Kittrell and Hayes-Brown said people working to solve the housing problem in small towns often feel disconnected from the financial and political resources of the big city.  

Hayes-Brown pointed out that a small investment could make a big difference in a rural area.  

There are a number of steps local and state policymakers can take to address homelessness, said Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  

Federal COVID relief funds could be used to help build affordable units and provide rent support, she said.  

Municipalities can consider changing zoning laws to allow for more dense housing, such as multi-family units. 

Some cities have banned landlords from asking how people will pay for a rental unit in an effort to stop discrimination against those relying on housing vouchers, Saadian said.  

The federal government has a role to play as well. Though there is a federal rental assistance program, it only serves one in four people who need it to access affordable housing. More funding could increase the number of people helped, Saadian said.  

A state Senate study committee on homelessness chaired by Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, held its first meeting earlier this month. Advocates from both Atlanta and smaller towns across the state testified. The committee will meet again this fall.

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

Former state employee charged in fraud scheme

ATLANTA – A former Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA) counselor has been charged with forging educational records and creating fake students with non-existent disabilities and illnesses in an elaborate, multi-year scheme to steal more than $1.3 million.  

From May 2016 to November 2020, Karen C. Lyke, 37, of Toledo, Ohio, and a close relative allegedly conspired to steal money from the GVRA by claiming educational expenses for 13 fake students. Lyke and the relative used the names of actual friends and relatives as the names of the fake disabled students seeking tuition assistance from the agency.

“Through her alleged scheme, Karen Lyke targeted money meant for those with disabilities trying to improve their lives,” said Keri Farley, special agent in Charge of the FBI’s Atlanta office.

“Not only is theft of government money a serious crime that will be vigorously investigated, but all too often it also deprives our most vulnerable citizens of vital assistance,” added Georgia State Inspector General Scott McAfee.

“[The Georgia Office of Inspector General] will continue to uphold the integrity of state programs and ensure taxpayer dollars are used for their intended purpose.”

Lyke and her relative allegedly created fake medical records to make it appear that the 13 fake students qualified for tuition assistance from the GVRA. They claimed these fake students suffered from disabilities or illnesses like AIDS, cancer, psychosocial impairments, or muscular dystrophy.

As proof of identification, they provided the GVRA with manufactured images of fake driver’s licenses that listed the names of their friends and relatives.

They then used photo-editing software to alter authentic college transcripts, financial aid reports, and proofs of registration from actual GVRA clients to support claims that the fake students attended schools including Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, or the University of Georgia. Lyke then allegedly uploaded the sham driver’s licenses, transcripts, financial aid reports, and other documentation into the GVRA’s electronic database.

Based on the false documentation, Lyke caused more than 230 checks to be mailed to the 13 friends and relatives for claimed educational expenses.

After Lyke left the GVRA in March 2019, she and her relative allegedly continued to submit forged paperwork to the GVRA for non-existent educational expenses. Based on the false submissions, the GVRA continued to issue checks to the fake students for bogus educational expenses.

The two used the stolen GVRA funds to pay for various personal expenses, including cars, jewelry, high-end guitars, and the down payment on a new home. In total, based on the false documentation they created, the GVRA mailed more than 230 checks to Lyke and her relative.

Between August 2016 and February 2019, the two also allegedly conspired to steal several high-value computers from the GVRA.

Lyke arranged for at least six computers to be shipped to her attention at the GVRA office in Norcross. She and her relative then sold at least five of the computers on eBay and kept one for personal use.

The computers and various accessories were worth about $32,000.

In connection with the computer thefts, Lyke is charged with one count of conspiring to commit federal program theft. She has stated her intent to plead guilty to the charge.

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