Deal team under scrutiny

Nathan Deal

ATLANTA --- As Republican Nathan Deal prepares to take office as Georgia's next governor, he's relying on a transition team stacked with current and former lobbyists, business leaders and others who could have a financial stake in the decisions of his administration.


The 26-member team will help Deal navigate the next two months before his inauguration Jan. 10. It will help craft a road map for the administration, working on a legislative agenda and helping set state budget priorities. Its members also have Deal's ear as he hires top aides and agency heads who will ultimately implement his policies.

Several of those Deal has tapped to help lead his transition team are veterans of the Capitol's lobbying corps, having worked for industries that include health care, insurance, utilities and tourism.

As part of joining the team, lobbyists agreed to halt any lobbying activities and de-register with the state. However, they are not barred from collecting paychecks from their firms or clients while they serve.

"These are people we trust who are donating their time," transition committee chairman Rogers Wade said. "They still need to be able to pay their electric bills."

Wade said team members were selected for their expertise in specific areas and knowledge of state government.

Seven of the 26 are current or former lobbyists. Two outgoing state legislators on the team are headed into the lobbying world. Jerry Keen, who left as House majority leader earlier this month, is joining the powerful lobbying firm Troutman Sanders as a consultant. State Sen. Chip Pearson, who did not seek re-election, has formed a consulting business with two lobbyists that has worked to push for new reservoirs as the state grapples with water issues.

State law prohibits elected officials from lobbying for one year after leaving office, so Keen and Pearson are not permitted to do direct lobbying in the coming legislative session.

Political experts and ethics watchdogs say the number of lobbyists Deal has tapped to help him is unusual.

"It has not been the norm," said Steve Anthony, a political science professor at Georgia State University who was once chief of staff to former Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy.

Bill Bozarth, the head of the Georgia chapter of Common Cause, agreed that Deal is leaning more heavily on lobbyists than his two most recent predecessors -- Democrat Roy Barnes and Republican Sonny Perdue.

"The people of Georgia have a right to wonder if a paid lobbyist, even one who has temporarily de-registered, will put the interests of his client ahead of the interests of all the people when they help determine appointments to boards and authorities which set policy and decide who does and doesn't get state contracts," Bozarth said.

Among the biggest issues that will confront lawmakers and the Deal administration in the coming legislative session are plans to overhaul the state's tax code, which could include wiping out tax exemptions for a number of special interests. Lobbying to keep exemptions is expected to be intense.

Among the lobbyists Deal has tapped for his team are:

- Pete Robinson, the chairman of the lobbying arm of Troutman Sanders. He has worked on behalf of insurance giants such as Aflac and Cigna in addition to other large companies, including Verizon, Merck and Coca-Cola.

- Dan Lee, a former state senator who has worked for clients such as Titlemax, which has pushed for reforms to the state's payday lending laws, and Corrections Corporation of America, which operates private prisons in the state.

- Joe Tanner, a former state Department of Natural Resources commissioner who has lobbied for Georgia Power, cable television and health care groups. His engineering firm, Joe Tanner and Associates, is a consultant for proposed reservoir projects.

- Monty Veazey, a lobbyist who heads the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals and regularly pushes for more Medicaid and health care money.

- Rob Leebern, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who worked for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss when Chambliss was in the U.S. House.

- John Watson, who founded an Atlanta lobbying firm after leaving as Perdue's chief of staff. Watson is now working in real estate.

- Eric Johnson, the former president pro tempore of the state Senate, who lost to Deal in the Republican gubernatorial primary. He recently joined McGuire Woods Consulting and will conduct lobbying work.

Deal's inaugural team is headed by Jay Morgan, a longtime lobbyist.

Others with prominent business interests on the panel are:

- Charles Tarbutton, the assistant vice president of Sandersville Railroad Co., which has opposed efforts to slap a severance tax on the mineral kaolin, which it hauls from five middle Georgia companies.

- Philip Wilheit, the head of Gainesville-based Wilheit Packaging. Wilheit is a major campaign contributor to Deal and served as chairman of his gubernatorial campaign.

- Kit Dunlap, the president and chief executive officer of the Hall County Chamber of Commerce.

- Neil Pruitt, the head of UHS-Pruitt, which runs more than 70 skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities in the Southeast.

- Bill Lingenfelter, a former president of Wachovia Bank of Georgia.

- Wesley Smith, the chief executive officer and chairman of Northwest Georgia Bank in Catoosa County, who also served as treasurer of Deal's campaign.



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