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Columbia County attorney reveals he helped close deal on Magnolia Trace

Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012 9:23 PM
Last updated Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 1:52 AM
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Columbia County’s attorney confirmed Tuesday that he had been paid to work as the closing attorney on a Martinez land deal on which an affordable housing development is under construction, but denied there was any conflict of interest.

In a brief interview after Tuesday’s Columbia County Commission meeting, county attorney Doug Batchelor said he worked as the closing attorney for Affordable Equity Partners, the purchaser of the Magnolia Trace property, during the closing of the firm’s purchase of the land last fall.

“I had nothing to do with the contract,” Batchelor said, “I just administered the closing.”

The contract for the purchase had already been worked out before he got involved, he said.

Batchelor said he previously had helped the company “about two years ago” on the purchase of land in McDuffie County, and said he assumed that’s why the Missouri company contacted him again for another purchase in the area.

He said there was “absolutely not” any conflict between working for the county as its attorney and for the developer of the project.

“We were just closing a piece of real estate, which we do each day,” Batchelor said.

He said he couldn’t recall whether he disclosed his previous work for the company on the McDuffie County deal when he asked Commission Chairman Ron Cross and District 2 Commissioner Trey Allen to meet in his office with an AEP representative to hear a pitch in June 2010 on the affordable housing development.

The closing of that land deal occurred more than a year later, in September 2011.

“I don’t know when I could have had a conflict,” Batchelor said.

County Administrator Scott Johnson said a check of the county’s records shows Batchelor did not bill the county for the meeting between Cross, Allen and AEP, and thus was not serving on the county’s behalf during that meeting.

The revelation that Batchelor also has worked for AEP comes about five weeks after county commissioners voted to hire an outside attorney to seek a means to “interrupt” construction of the 15-acre development featuring 50 single-family rental homes. Later, Savannah, Ga., lawyer Patrick T. O’Connor wrote to Columbia County officials that they had no legal recourse to stop the project.

Cross, during Tuesday’s commission meeting, announced those findings and said “as far as our action, this is the end of it.”

In June 2010, after Cross and Allen met with AEP representatives, commissioners approved a resolution favoring “affordable housing.” The company then sent that resolution as part of an application to the state Department of Community Affairs seeking tax credits from the DCA to build low-cost rental homes.

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overburdened_taxpayer
117
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overburdened_taxpayer 01/17/12 - 10:38 pm
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Wow, how could it not be a

Wow, how could it not be a conflict of interest. Was he working in his firm and client's best interest or the county's? What was his legal advice to the county commissioners? Probably to "endorse" the construction. What a joke!

Riverman1
84225
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Riverman1 01/17/12 - 10:57 pm
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This is my comment at 5:12 PM

This is my comment at 5:12 PM today under a similar article. This is my comment to someone named "Slice of Justice.":

Glad to see you created a name to take up for Magnolia Trace and take up for Doug Batchelor. You say there's nothing the county can do to keep out unwanted things? Wrong.

Apartments have been limited to specific areas of the county and no more areas will be approved for construction of them. So if you buy land out in the county and attempt to build apartments you will be stopped. The reason the county uses is growth is only wanted in certain areas to prevent the infrastructure from becoming strained.

If you think it's such a great idea for people to be given housing based on a limited income why don't we raise the income level? Make it $80, 000 and give more people affordable housing? $100,000?

Why is it important that we should have known about the Batchelor connection with the Magnolia Trace Co.? Because this company came into Georgia and had the tax laws changed to make this type project possible. They gave money to Nathan Deal and Ben Harbin. Then they chose to build in Columbia County.

A private meeting was held with the company operatives, Cross and Allen. All these hidden connections don't make the public feel served in any way. Now another one is added with the county attorney representing Magnolia Trace at the closing, yet, sitting before that famous Commission meeting slyly taking up for them even to the point of misrepresenting how many houses would be built.

The honest thing for him to have done would have been to disclose his involvement and recuse himself from acting as the county attorney at the meeting.

Riverman1
84225
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Riverman1 01/17/12 - 10:54 pm
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I defy anyone who was at THAT

I defy anyone who was at THAT Commission meeting where Batchelor spoke up for what had taken place giving Magnolia Trace the okay to build and not.....puke. What treachery.

Riverman1
84225
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Riverman1 01/17/12 - 11:04 pm
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Why doesn't the CCNT mention

Why doesn't the CCNT mention the campaign contributions the Magnolia Trace Co. gave to Ben Harbin? Is that not pertinent information?

Willow Bailey
20580
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Willow Bailey 01/17/12 - 11:33 pm
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It is to me River, thanks

It is to me River, thanks for bringing this out. I think, "puke, what treachery", just about sums up the whole of it. I don't see how Batchelor can say he did not have a conflict of interest. It reeks.

justputtin
1414
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justputtin 01/17/12 - 11:34 pm
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Get everyone you know to vote

Get everyone you know to vote at the next election. Columbia County needs a "cleansing"!

Willow Bailey
20580
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Willow Bailey 01/17/12 - 11:36 pm
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They don't think we can

They don't think we can remember, but we can.

scoopdedoop64
2366
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scoopdedoop64 01/17/12 - 11:42 pm
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This whole deal is a terrible

This whole deal is a terrible thing for Columbia County and we will reap the consequences of it for years to come. We will need to hire another 20 policeman to handle the crime that will come as a result of this.

Little Lamb
46074
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Little Lamb 01/17/12 - 11:57 pm
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Riverman1 wrote: A private

Riverman1 wrote:

A private meeting was held with the company operatives, Cross and Allen [don't forget that Batchelor was there also — LL]. . . . Now another one is added with the county attorney representing Magnolia Trace at the closing, yet, sitting before that famous Commission meeting slyly taking up for them even to the point of misrepresenting how many houses would be built. The honest thing for him [Batchelor — LL] to have done would have been to disclose his involvement and recuse himself from acting as the county attorney at the meeting.

You are absolutely right, RM. The county attorney should have disclosed at that official commission meeting that he had been paid by the LLC for closing on the property. There is nothing wrong for his making a buck for legal services, but he should have disclosed it at the meeting.

The most honorable thing that Batchelor should do at this point is to resign as county attorney. The county commission should accept his resignation with all the pomp and ceremony required for such a long and intimate relationship. Then, Batchelor should dive into the real money and the Commission should find a new attorney who will represent the citizens and not the developers.

Willow Bailey
20580
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Willow Bailey 01/17/12 - 11:56 pm
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Agree with LL.

Agree with LL.

blues550
376
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blues550 01/18/12 - 08:05 am
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Batchelor and Cross simply
Unpublished

Batchelor and Cross simply need to go. One fired and the other voted out. What arrogance.

my.voice
4826
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my.voice 01/18/12 - 09:43 am
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I still don't see the issue

I still don't see the issue here other than a LOT of misinformed residents.

A - The site was ALREADY zoned for this use. Zoning is what controls the use, period.
B - The Commission didn't APPROVE anything.
C - The Commission made a RESOLUTION to support affordable housing (hint: look up RESOLUTION). While the developer probably sought the resolution, the TC funding would have likely gone thru without it. These are normally a checklist item. The only thing preventing the use was A (above). A RESOLUTION is a non binding agreement folks. Saying they support affordable housing is like them saying they support free speech.
D - Everyone is entitled to affordable housing. Read up on the FFHA of 1988 regarding the Supreme Courts rulings on local government providing (allowing) fair share of affordable housing.

I hope this helps clear up some of the misconceptions involved in this project. And no, I am not a developer or connected to the Govt in any way.......except that they have attached themselves to my wallet.

Maybe the AC should do a story on this since it seems to have a lot of folks confused. They didn't build a Wal Mart in the folks backyard, they are building residential homes.

Chillen
17
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Chillen 01/18/12 - 09:43 am
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No conflict of interest? Yea

No conflict of interest? Yea right. These guys are all in it up to their eyeballs on this project. Some more investigative reporting needs to be done.

DoggieMom
236
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DoggieMom 01/18/12 - 10:06 am
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Doesn't The Georgia State Bar

Doesn't The Georgia State Bar have an Ethics Committee to investigate the entire situation?

Put a freeze on the project, & examine every person who helped to "quietly push this through" & approved before many of us even knew the plan!!.
Find & connect any & all political donations.

Anyone who passes this test, but still wants this type of housing "In the best interests of the county", and is cleared of ethics violations, should be forced/required to live in one of the units, & be responsible for managing a safe, drug-free, crime-free community! Win/win for the neighbors, who do NOT want their property values to plummet.

If you DO live within a mile of the proposed Magnolia Trace, once the sales are recorded in the county tax office, you should request & require your property to be reassessed.
The average price of those units is the new value of your home.

my.voice
4826
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my.voice 01/18/12 - 10:30 am
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Doggie...these are rental

Doggie...these are rental units.

Little Lamb
46074
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Little Lamb 01/18/12 - 11:05 am
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DoggieMom wrote: If you DO

DoggieMom wrote:

If you DO live within a mile of the proposed Magnolia Trace, once the sales are recorded in the county tax office, you should request & require your property to be reassessed. The average price of those units is the new value of your home.

During the politicking and marketing phase of the project, the developer said that the value of each home in Magnolia Trace would be about $190,000. He was probably overestimating just to give a favorable impression while attempting to sell the project. But, if we take him at his word and the property assessor places a value of $190,000 on each of these homes, then most of the properties in a 1 mile radius would see their property assessment go up, not down.

Little Lamb
46074
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Little Lamb 01/18/12 - 11:08 am
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I just thought of a reason

I just thought of a reason why the owner of Magnolia Trace would want to high-ball the property value. It would be because he would have a larger amortization schedule that he can deduct from the corporate income tax. The deduction would be greater than the property tax hit. Could I be correct?

augusta citizen
9375
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augusta citizen 01/18/12 - 11:26 am
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This stinks to high Heaven!

This stinks to high Heaven!

eb97
835
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eb97 01/18/12 - 12:47 pm
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This almost sounds like the

This almost sounds like the way RC does business .

itsanotherday1
43360
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itsanotherday1 01/18/12 - 01:09 pm
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Slice, what is going to

Slice, what is going to happen when the economy improves and all of these "hand ups" get back on their feet and move along to their own homes? Who fills the empty units then? At what point do they change the rules and start accepting the more typical slovenly section 8 renters because those that can are renting or buying a house now?

It is the long term people are most concerned about. Just like every middle income neighborhood, as it gets older, it will get more and more run down, drawing more and more people who perpetuate "run down".

eb97
835
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eb97 01/18/12 - 01:12 pm
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Slice, don't be surprised to

Slice, don't be surprised to see people moving from CC to North Augusta like the people in RC are now doing. There will be so much back-lash over this in CC and the people will not stand for politics like this in their community. You will see all commissioners voted out along with other politicians connected to this project.

Sargebaby
4693
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Sargebaby 01/18/12 - 01:18 pm
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LittleLamb says; "But, if we

LittleLamb says; "But, if we take him at his word and the property assessor places a value of $190,000 on each of these homes, then most of the properties in a 1 mile radius would see their property assessment go up, not down."

LL, have you ever seen this happen in Columbia County? My personal opinion is, that those units will be far less than 190K.

Little Lamb
46074
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Little Lamb 01/18/12 - 02:01 pm
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I would like to change the

I would like to change the subject for a minute. I brushed completely by this sentence the first time I read the article:

County Administrator Scott Johnson said a check of the county’s records shows Batchelor did not bill the county for the meeting between Cross, Allen and AEP, and thus was not serving on the county’s behalf during that meeting.

This is the fishiest smell I've encountered yet on this issue. There were representatives from AEP (unnamed) at the meeting and representives from county government (Cross and Allen) at the meeting and an attorney that before and after the meeting did legal business for both other sides. Now, if Batchelor did not bill the county for time spent at the meeting, you can bet your bottom dollar he did bill AEP. So in that meeting he would have been the attorney of record for AEP and advocating their interests.

However, it would be very easy for Cross and Allen to think that Batchelor was acting on the county's behalf because he has an ongoing contract with the county. I doubt if full disclosure occurred at that meeting.

Little Lamb
46074
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Little Lamb 01/18/12 - 01:59 pm
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0
Sargebaby wrote: My personal

Sargebaby wrote:

My personal opinion is, that those units will be far less than 190K.

I agree with you, Sarge. But wouldn't you agree with my premise that the owner would tell the IRS that they cost $190K apiece so they could deduct a higher depreciation allowance?

Riverman1
84225
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Riverman1 01/18/12 - 02:04 pm
0
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LL, that's one of the most

LL, that's one of the most important points made yet. So Cross and Allen knew Batchelor was not representing county interests alone or didn't they? Did AEP pay him for his time at that meeting? If Batchelor wasn't being paid by the county for the meeting and was not acting soley for them he should have informed everyone. If he says he wasn't paid by anyone then it's reasonable to assume he was playing both sides to come up with a solution he wanted. Guess what that was?

Little Lamb
46074
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Little Lamb 01/18/12 - 03:23 pm
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Slice, you have made some

Slice, you have made some good points. I want to point out to you that the meeting I referred to in my 1:01 post and River referred to in his 1:04 post is not the real estate closing meeting. We are talking about the meeting in June, 2010, between the county commission chairman, district 2 commissioner, and unnamed representatives of AEP.

Slice of Justice
0
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Slice of Justice 01/18/12 - 04:10 pm
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Why would it be a big deal to

Why would it be a big deal to have two parties (buyer and seller) in a meeting.

Would it make a difference if you were in a meeting to purchase land from the County and the commissioenr and representative for that area was at the meeting?

Slice of Justice
0
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Slice of Justice 01/18/12 - 04:15 pm
0
0
Just for informational

Just for informational purposes: an attorney can have two clients at the same time. The same attorney can coordinate meetings for those two clients without having a conflict of interest. Both clients knew of each other. If an attorney is present at the meeting, he is there to answer legal questions from either.

Little Lamb
46074
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Little Lamb 01/18/12 - 04:17 pm
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You are missing my point,

You are missing my point, Slice. There is nothing wrong with a buyer and seller to meet, with or without lawyers. But the June, 2010, meeting was not between buyers and sellers. It was about property owner and government. Nothing wrong there, either. But it is unusual that the contracted county government attorney was acting in the capacity as attorney for the property owner.

The only thing missing is whether the attorney told his other clients (i.e., the county government) that he was acting on behalf of the property owner. I'm sure none of the participants will be telling, so we'll never know.

I'm assuming that AEP had already purchased the property in June, 2010. If that's not true, forgive my assumption.

Discussionstarter
495
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Discussionstarter 01/18/12 - 04:21 pm
0
0
The lack of transparency on

The lack of transparency on the part of Batchelor and Cross not disclosing all of this till now erodes the trust we have in them and any other person that behaves this way. Period.

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