LIKE MOST AMERICANS, I believe the press is a cornerstone of our democracy. However, following a series of articles and editorials about me in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I have learned that what we read in the newspaper is not always what it appears.
Sometime ago a number of individuals in Augusta were approached by an AJC reporter who claimed he was working on an article about "the economic revitalization of Augusta."
Many public officials, businesspeople and citizens who have worked hard to improve Augusta were eager to cooperate. They believed we deserved a positive article recognizing and praising the progress in our community.
What these people did not realize, however, was that the reporter had no intention of writing a story about Augusta or the rebirth of our city.
Instead, his goal was to trick them into providing information about me and my business, which he could distort to portray me as a corrupt politician and businessman.
THE LESSON IS that any reporter who is willing to speak a lie is willing to publish a lie. Even after I learned the AJC's true mission I sought to cooperate with the reporter in the hope that if I could tell my story directly, the truth would have to be told.
I agreed to sit down with the reporter and answer his questions under one simple condition: that my attorney be present to document what was said. Unfortunately, the reporter refused to interview me in the presence of my attorney.
The resulting "news" story was, to put it mildly, a hodgepodge of innuendo and opinion obscured by bold headlines, full color pictures and flashy graphics. When you don't have facts to support your argument, I suppose that is all you are left with.
Fortunately, I do have the facts:
The story reeled off a series of supposedly shocking instances where I did not disclose my private business activities. The clear implication was that I tried to hide my business activities. If so, it is undoubtedly the worst kept secret in Augusta where my businesses are well-known throughout the community.
Only grudgingly did the reporter mention that I didn't disclose these activities because the law says I am not supposed to. Furthermore, the story never mentions that in many cases I have disclosed business transactions even though the law does not require it.
The story also suggested that there was some kind of backroom deal regarding funding by the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. However, as the reporter was informed by ANIC authorities, each ANIC project was authorized by a vote of the entire board of directors. There could not have been any fuller disclosure. More to the point, and let me be perfectly clear about this: I have never received one dime from ANIC.
Likewise, despite the implication of the article and as the AJC's reporter was well aware, no ANIC funds have been used by the CSRA Business League to pay for the lease on a building owned by my business.
The AJC story also suggested some sinister motive behind the fact that certain law, accounting and real estate firms were involved in Augusta's redevelopment efforts. It failed to mention that these firms are among the largest and most prestigious in the city, indeed in the state.
Similarly, the AJC dedicated a completely separate article to my campaign expenditures: noting that my campaign leases office space from one of my businesses and that I reimbursed my adult children for their work on the campaign's behalf.
ONLY LATER IN the story was it mentioned that such expenditures are not against the law. It was never mentioned that they are commonplace. Many of my colleagues in the legislature make similar expenditures and for good reason. My company has extra office space - I'm not about to look elsewhere when there is a perfectly good office available.
My children are talented professionals and I trust them implicitly. Who better to assist in my campaigns?
The reporter also claimed that my campaign made payments to my wife's catering business. The problem: my wife does not and she never had a catering business. My campaign did not make any payments to my wife whatsoever for catering. The reporter simply assumed that my wife had a catering business. This kind of sloppy journalism characterized the entire article.
AJC also "revealed" that my campaign purchased a condominium in Atlanta. The problem: my campaign did no such thing. I purchased the condominium and I make the mortgage payments. My campaign only paid certain fees relating to my presence there on official business, a use that is completely in accordance with the law. Had the reporter been willing to sit down with me in person, he could have avoided his mistake.
The AJC story also suggested that my efforts to win redevelopment funding for Augusta has created a rich source of campaign contributions from those who will receive this funding. Only later did the reporter acknowledge that, in 2000, less than 6 percent of contributions to my campaign were from donors even remotely connected to the redevelopment process.
The story also suggested that I had somehow used inside information to purchase property along the Augusta canal that was slated for redevelopment. But, as the reporter was forced to admit, the details of this redevelopment plan have been common knowledge for years and have even been the subject of a federal grant request.
A great deal of space was devoted to the fact that my private businesses sometimes do business with other private businesses, including MCG Health, Inc., that happen to receive some state funding. In a bizarre twist, the reporter treated as a scoop the fact that one of my businesses received revenue from an organization that received funding from a non-profit that received funding from the state. ...
PERHAPS THEM AJC and its reporters are not aware of how big the state's budget is or how many businesses receive state funding in one way or another. The fact is that you would be hard pressed to find a business in Georgia that does not receive funding from the state in one form or another.
In the past few years, Augusta has experienced its first real economic development in over 40 years and I offer no apologies for playing a part in it. The AJC's stories and editorials have spilled a lot of ink about my role in this process without ever showing I did anything wrong. I worked in the legislature to obtain funds for my community.
I actively sought to see those funds put to good use. I have worked with a wide cross-section of my community to see that Augusta gets the full benefit of redevelopment.
The AJC may believe otherwise, but helping my constituents isn't unethical; it is my job. Shouldn't that be the point?
I wish the Atlanta newspaper would do the story they originally said they wanted to do - about the remarkable redevelopment efforts in Augusta.
Come down and see the progress we are making as a community. That's the real story.
(Editor's note: The author, an Augusta Democrat, is the state Senate majority leader.)
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