Published Sunday, May 27, 2012
Did you hear the one about the doctor who is a good friend, political ally and business associate of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal who “just happened” to lease a building he owned to the state for $1.4 million bucks?
What? Get outta here, you yell. Say it ain’t so. Surely this deal isn’t as shady as it sounds.
Actually, it may not be. The transaction reeks of cronyism and conflict of interest, but seems to be perfectly legal. Which serves to prove that, in the world of politics, sleaze and legality are not mutually exclusive.
This episode began months ago, when Gainesville physician Larry “Jeff” Payne was appointed by Gov. Deal to serve on the State Properties Commission, which is in charge of leasing properties for state agencies. Not long after Payne’s appointment, the Georgia Department of Revenue started seeking office space in north Georgia. After an exhaustive search, the ideal space was located in Gov. Deal’s hometown of Gainesville.
Purely by chance, the 9,000 square feet of office space was owned by Commissioner Payne, who also just happened to be a partner in one of Deal’s businesses and a loyal Deal campaign contributor.
And so it was that in January of 2012, the State of Georgia signed a lease agreeing to rent Payne’s office space for ten years at the sum of $140,000 per annum.
And nobody knew a thing about it until the story broke in what former Ga. Governor Eugene Talmadge (and many of his successors) called “Them lyin’ Atlanta newspapers.”
According to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, staffers of the State Properties Commission had no idea they were negotiating a lease on a building owned by a Deal ally who served on the board of the commission for which they worked.
You know what? I believe them. The way the system is set up, state employees negotiating property leases are not required to check a property’s political pedigree. Nor should they be. Under the law, Payne was not required to disclose his connection to the property or the governor.
Everyone followed the law but this incident suggests that in the future full disclosure should be required in such cases to avoid even the appearance of conflict.
When the deal was disclosed, Payne said he knew his building was being considered for a lease but withheld disclosure.
“I did not want anybody to think that I was influencing their decision,” Payne said.
Once the scam, uh, transaction, was revealed, Payne resigned from the State Properties Commission. His reputation may have taken a slight hit, but his wallet will be fine.
Following the furor, it was suggested the state cancel the lease. But a cancellation would have required the state to pay Payne $229,000 in early termination fees. So the lease remains in place and Payne will still collect his $1.4 million. And it’s all perfectly legal.
A politician friend of mine who also made a few bucks leasing his properties to the state once told me, “When I went into politics I didn’t take a vow of poverty.”
No, but surely it’s not too much to ask that politicians and their pals who execute legitimate deals be required to disclose that such deals are pending before the cash starts to flow. Voters might like to know.
If the deal is best for all involved — including taxpayers — no one will complain. If it takes an independent search of state records to unearth the details then Georgians will continue to wonder how — with aplologies to Jerry Reed — politicians always get the gold mine and taxpayers get the shaft.
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