Georgia correctional officer dies in line of duty

Robert Clark

ATLANTA – An inmate at Smith State Prison in Glennville has been charged with killing a correctional officer who was escorting him from the dining hall.

Correctional Officer Robert Clark, 42, was assaulted from behind with a homemade weapon Sunday as he was escorting inmates Layton Lester and Marko Willingham, according to a news release from the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC).

Willingham, who stepped in to help Officer Clark, also was assaulted. Both were transported to local hospitals, where Clark died of his wounds and Willingham remains with non-life threatening injuries.

“The entire GDC team is mourning the loss of one of our own, and we collectively express our deepest condolences to Officer Clark’s family and friends,” state Commissioner of Corrections Tyrone Oliver said Sunday. “We will support them as they navigate this tragedy over the coming days, weeks and months.”

“Today, we join the public safety community in mourning the loss of Corrections Officer Robert Clark,” Gov. Brian Kemp added. “Please join us in praying for his family, loved ones, and the Georgia Department of Corrections at this time.”

Clark was new to the corrections agency, having just joined the department at Smith State Prison in April.

Lester will be charged in the assault and resulting death of Officer Clark, as well as the assault of inmate Willingham.

Lester is serving a life sentence for a murder conviction stemming from a 2007 killing and armed robbery in Tift County, the Associated Press reported.

Pro-tort reform nonprofit launching ad campaign

ATLANTA – A nonprofit headed by a former aide to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is launching a six-figure ad campaign supporting tort reform legislation.

Kemp said in August that reforming the state’s civil justice system would be a priority for next year’s General Assembly session.

The last major change in Georgia’s tort laws came back in 2005, when the legislature’s newly elected Republican majorities in the state House and Senate passed a bill capping awards of non-economic damages in lawsuits at $350,000.

 However, the state Supreme Court overturned the law in 2010. Since then, efforts to pass significant tort reform have failed to make it through the General Assembly.

“For too long, Georgia tort laws have encouraged frivolous lawsuits that hamstring job creators, drive up insurance costs for families already struggling to make ends meet, undermine fairness in the courtroom, and make it harder to start, grow, and operate a small business,” said Cody Hall, executive director of Hardworking Georgians Inc.

Hall said the nonprofit will go “all-in” to support Kemp’s push for tort reform during the 2024 legislative session starting in January. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce will be an ally in that fight.

Legislative Democrats and trial lawyers will be on the other side of the debate. Opponents of tort reform say changes to the civil justice system backed by Republicans would strip away the constitutional rights of victims of car crashes and medical malpractice to have their day in court.

Robin Rhodes retiring from Georgia Press Association leadership post

Robin Rhodes

ATLANTA – Thirty years ago, the newspaper industry was just beginning to feel the first ripples of what would become a massive wave of change brought on by the internet.

That same year – 1993 – Robin Rhodes was stepping up from a staff position at the Georgia Press Association (GPA) to take the organization’s helm as executive director. Thanks to her leadership, newspaper executives across the state made the transition to the digital world smoothly instead of fighting it.

“The internet has made a huge difference in the way newspapers are produced,” said Rhodes, who will retire as the GPA’s full-time leader this fall. “We’ve had to move the legal [notices] online. That was a huge accomplishment.

“The members realized that had to be done or they would lose that business. We were probably one of the first states to have 100% participation.”

Rhodes was a natural fit for the GPA when she joined the association in 1986. She had been working for a company that hosted trade shows, including the Atlanta Home Show, where she sold booths to real-estate vendors.

Rhodes got a phone call from then-GPA Executive Director Kathy Berry asking if she’d be interested in handling arrangements for the association’s annual convention.

“Going to the GPA involved pretty much the same thing,” Rhodes said.

When Berry left the association in 1993, Rhodes applied for and landed the job as her successor.

Along with adapting to the internet era, Rhodes said a major challenge of her tenure in office has been coping with large corporations buying up local newspapers.

“They’re from out of state. They don’t care about the community,” she said. “It’s not the same presence as local ownership.”

One of the executive director’s key roles is representing the newspaper industry’s interests with state government leaders. That involves wearing out a lot of shoe leather in the hallways of the Gold Dome during annual General Assembly sessions.

“Robin Rhodes has more connections than Georgia has pine trees,” said Alan NeSmith, regional publisher of The Northeast Georgian in Cornelia and past president of the GPA. “Her relationships with influential leaders and hardworking newspaper people across the state has been the bedrock of our beloved association.”

Rhodes said Atlanta-based Troutman Peppers Strategies and its principal, Ragen Marsh, have been highly effective representing the GPA at the state Capitol. She also gave a shout-out to the various executives at member newspapers.

“Their relationships with local legislators has been tremendous,” she said.

GPA’s strong working relationship with Georgia decision makers paid off this year when the General Assembly passed and Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation allowing newspapers to raise their rates for legal notices. House Bill 254 cleared the legislature with just one “no” vote.

“[Newspapers] hadn’t had an increase in 27 years,” Rhodes said. “It was time.”

Kemp had parting words of praise for Rhodes in congratulating her on her retirement.

“For decades, her leadership has helped bring awareness of important developments to communities all across our state,” the governor said. “She has played an essential role in informing Georgians of what’s going on, both locally and statewide.”

Rhodes credited Capitol Beat News Service, which the GPA launched nearly four years ago, with contributing to that mission of informing Georgians about the latest happenings in state government.

“The small newspapers don’t have the opportunity to have somebody at the Capitol,” she said. “That was a void across our state. You ask any newspaper out there, and it has a lifeline to the Capitol.”

Rhodes isn’t stepping away from the GPA completely. She plans to spend the next two years in a part-time capacity,

“I’ll be giving up the day to day and working with Ragen and the [GPA] board, which is a great opportunity for me,” she said. “It keeps me involved.”

Georgia communities land federal public safety grants

ATLANTA – The Justice Department is awarding more than $6.4 million in grants to local civic groups, governments, and law enforcement agencies in Georgia to support public safety and community justice activities.

Fifteen grants will go to recipients in the cities of Albany, Americus, Athens, Butler, Columbus, Macon, Thomasville, Tifton, and Warner Robins.

“These grants address many of the greatest concerns our citizens have today, which boil down to safer communities for all,” said Peter Leary, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. “This kind of support for our community and law enforcement partners’ efforts goes hand in hand with our focused efforts to reduce violence and hold the most violent offenders accountable.”

Three of the grants are worth nearly $1 million each. In Albany, a group called This WORKS Inc. will partner with the Dougherty County School System to provide a behavioral health program that will include antiviolence education.

The Muscogee County School District in Columbus will use its grant funds to support efforts to prevent group-based retaliatory violence.

The Taylor County School District in Butler will put its grant toward improving school safety and increasing access to mental health care for students.

Athens-based Area Committees to Improve Opportunities Now Inc. will receive nearly $785,000 to support a 36-county program providing employment coaching and mentoring for young people before and after their release from the criminal justice system.

Thomasville will use a grant of more than $435,000 to launch a law enforcement and mental health co-responder program for real-time responses to emergencies.

Macon-Bibb County will put a $385,000 grant toward expanding its domestic violence unit by adding an investigator and prosecutor.

The city of Columbus will use a grant of nearly $120,000 to buy protective gear for law enforcement and jail personnel, add two K-9 units and provide a new smart app giving residents early warnings of emergencies.

The grants are being provided through the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.

State Sen. Colton Moore suspended from Republican Caucus

State Sen. Colton Moore

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate Republican Caucus has suspended freshman Sen. Colton Moore after he unsuccessfully pushed for a special legislative session to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s prosecution of former President Donald Trump.

Moore, R-Trenton, mounted his bid for a special session despite Gov. Brian Kemp publicly dismissing the idea and over the objections of the other 32 Republican state senators.

In a statement issued Thursday, the caucus accused Moore of using false statements to whip up public sentiment against those opposed to a special session .

“Senator Moore has a right to his opinion,” the statement read. “However, during his advocacy for his ill-conceived proposal, Senator Moore has knowingly misled people across Georgia and our nation, causing unnecessary tension and hostility while putting his caucus colleagues and their families at risk of personal harm.”

Moore drew national attention with his call for a special legislative session. He argued lawmakers could override Kemp’s objections by signing a petition demanding a special session, but he only convinced two other legislators to sign it.

At a news conference early this month that drew a raucous crowd of sign-waving supporters, Moore accused his legislative colleagues of “cowering” rather than stepping up and insisting on a special session.

Kemp had rejected the idea one week earlier during a news conference of his own, arguing Willis had not done anything illegal.

The caucus statement went on to accuse Moore of violating caucus rules on multiple occasions.

“[Moore] was given every opportunity to simply adhere to the rules going forward,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, he has refused and was suspended by leadership from participating in the caucus until he agrees to abide by the rules, which he voted for at the beginning of his term.”

Moore was elected to the Senate last year, succeeding longtime Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, representing Senate District 53 in Northwest Georgia.

The suspension from the Republican Caucus does not preclude Moore from continuing to represent his constituents in the Senate. The suspension is indefinite.