ATLANTA – In a state of 9 million people, it is more than a coincidence when a handful of families have multiple members serving in appointed positions to government boards.
And not just any boards. While governors must make hundreds of appointments to boards, commissions and task forces that range from the Civil War Commission to overseeing boxing and the nursing profession, those families tend to wind up on just a few boards.
“You can tell what governors care about most. Obviously they put their most trusted people on the things they care about most,” said Alan Essig, a longtime observer of state government and the executive director of the private think tank Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“Those are the highest-power boards,” said retiring Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, an attorney with the GreenLaw environmental advocacy group. “Those are the tops.”
• Alec Poitevint, of Bainbridge, serves on the Georgia Ports Authority while his wife Doreen is on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.
• Earl Barrs, of Cochran, used to serve on the board of Industry, Trade & Tourism and now is on the Natural Resources Board while his wife Wanda is on the State Board of Education. Last year, each chaired the board.
• Dean Alford is a regent and his wife Debbie Dlugolenski is on the Georgia Lottery Corporation board and heads the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.
• Joe Rogers is on the Ports Authority while his wife Frances is on the Lottery board.
• Philip Wilheit Sr. is a regent. His son is on the Natural Resources Board.
• Charles Tarbutton is on the Economic Development Board. Benjamin R. Tarbutton is on the Lottery board. Ben J. Tarbutton Jr. is on the Technical College System Board. Benjamin James Tarbutton III is the chairman of the regents and is on the Rural Development Council and used to be on the state education board. Hugh Tarbutton is a former member of the Ports Authority.
The Tarbuttons run the Sandersville Railroad, a 9-mile line that hauls mostly kaolin bound for the Port of Savannah. Although Gov. Nathan Deal is originally from Sandersville, the family’s involvement predates Deal’s election.
The older Tarbuttons were generous contributors to Democratic candidates, but the younger ones give to Republicans on the state and federal level.
These families generally are considered political donors, but state records show they were not among the major givers. When some families gave tens of thousands of dollars spread between spouses and children, these appointee families’ donations were more modest.
Alec Poitevint will chair the Republican National Convention later this month and twice headed the Georgia Republican Party, but in 2008 he gave just $4,850 to the state party and $5,500 in 2010 to candidates but none in the governor’s race.
Earl Barrs gave Deal only $1,500 in 2010. And Joe Rogers’ only contribution in the last four years was $3,600 to Deal’s opponent, Karen Handel.
“You have to factor in something that’s really hard to trace: Did they raise money for a candidate?” said William Perry, the executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause of Georgia.
Someone who hosted a lucrative fundraiser or who bundled donations collected from others could gain a lot of favor with a politician and now show up as a big donor, Perry said.
“Sometimes you might see just a few thousand dollars on the list, but you have to see where their true reach is,” he said.
No one interviewed could point to an instance of any appointee making a direct profit financially from their service on a board. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t skepticism.
“I do know that the citizens of Georgia are suspicious,” said Rep. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, the executive director of the Georgia Watch advocacy.
Last month’s defeat of the transportation sales tax in most parts of the state and the overwhelming, bipartisan vote to limit lobbyists’ gifts to politicians together show that Georgians are skeptical, according to Parent.
“Any governor should be careful about what signals he is sending with his appointments,” she said.
Diligent board service takes time for business meetings and ceremonies and often cross-state travel – all for no pay or reimbursement of expenses.
“One could deduce that ... if they didn’t see some kind of reward in that, then they would turn it down,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
They do have a history of community service. Most of these family members also serve on other boards.
For example, Earl Barrs is a church deacon and has been the finance chairman for the UGA Arch Foundation. Dean Alford is the chairman of Miracle League Association that offers sports to handicapped children.
“I assume these people have some basic interest in these things they’re doing and they’re not just window dressing,” Bullock said.
Finding a professional connection to the boards they serve on seems remote in most cases. Joe Rogers is the CEO of the Waffle House restaurant chain, not a transportation company. The Tarbuttons’ railroad has the same interest in education as any employer.
State law no longer requires appointees to file personal financial disclosures with the state ethics commission, so it’s difficult to spot potential conflicts. They only need to file an annual statement saying they have no conflicts as of 2011.
Appointees to key boards are not completely free agents to pursue their own agendas. Governors usually remove appointees who stray from the governor’s view on major issues.
That can be a benefit to citizens. Voters who support the winner of governor’s races want to see him enact his platform, and having people he can trust on key boards helps him fulfill his promises, Bullock acknowledged.
It also means there is less disagreement on boards among appointees.
“I think most of these families are pretty monolithic. There’s not a lot of diversity on these families,” Benfield said.
The Senate has to confirm most appointments, but in recent memory it has been a mere formality every time except once. After Roy Barnes was defeated as governor, the GOP-controlled Senate rejected all of his appointments so his successor, Republican Sonny Perdue, could install his own.
“It seems like there should be some more attempt or process to match skill sets in the areas that the commissions make decisions on,” Perry said.