ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s suspended insurance commissioner testified at his federal fraud trial Tuesday, saying he oversaw valuable work for his former employer and that hundreds of thousands of dollars that flowed to an entity he controlled was not part of a scam.
Jim Beck took the stand in his own defense in federal court, where he is accused of diverting more than $2 million from the Georgia Underwriting Association, the state-chartered private entity he led before taking office as the state’s top insurance regulator in 2019.
Beck was indicted in 2019, months after taking office, on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns.
Beck’s testimony will continue Wednesday, but he told jurors Tuesday that he was paying cash to a computer programmer whose name has previously not surfaced publicly. Beck said he hired a man named Jerry Jordan, after bumping into him at a restaurant, to extract data from websites belonging to tax assessors and others to help GUA better judge and price its risks.
It’s unclear who Jordan is, why his name is just surfacing now or whether he will testify. Jordan’s name is not on the list of projected witnesses for the trial.
Beck said his goal was to pull down data from tax assessment records on items including the year a structure was built and how many square feet it had. Those numbers helped GUA determine the value that a building needed to be insured for and how much it should charge in premiums
“It allowed the company to rate property and, generally, in most cases, to get more money,” Beck testified.
He said employees and contractors who testified earlier may have believed they were doing all the work of looking up numbers, but barely “scratched the surface” of the 500,000 individual pieces of information that Beck said his project ultimately provided. He said Jordan provided him a laptop computer and that Beck received the information there and took it to GUA by memory stick or on paper printouts and had interns and employees enter the updated data.
Beck said he understood John Houser, then a board member overseeing GUA, had approved the project after Beck met with him in 2012. Beck said he and contractors only got paid when data allowed GUA to increase the premium it charged to cover a property. Houser, though, testified last week that he would have brought any such arrangement to the attention of the full board because Beck earning money from a vendor he hired would have violated GUA’s conflict of interest policy.
Earlier testimony alleged Beck siphoned off other money by providing invoices to GUA contractors who in turn billed GUA and sent money back to Beck or entities he controlled. Matthew Barfield, a cousin of Beck, was paid 10% of those amounts to create invoices using a company called Green Technology Services. Beck testified he hired Barfield to keep track of financial records.
“I am notoriously unorganized and I thought it would be nice to have someone to backstop me,” Beck said.
Beck kept 10% of the remaining money after Barfield’s cut, and Barfield at first supplied the rest to Beck in cash, later sending the amounts by electronic transfer after moving to Florida. Beck, though, said he didn’t keep the cash. He testified he would drive from his home in Carrollton to Newnan or LaGrange to meet with the programmer and hand over thousands in cash.
“The cash, that’s how Jerry wanted to be paid,” Beck testified, although he said later that method of payment was “a little unusual.”
Beck said he didn’t tell people the names of Green Technology or his own company that paid the programmer, Creative Consultants, or how the money was flowing, because “it didn’t seem relevant.”
Beck also testified Tuesday that his friend and another GUA subcontractor, Steve McKaig, was mistaken when he testified earlier in the trial that Beck told him Green Technology was also providing reinsurance to reduce GUA’s risks. Testimony for the day ended before Beck could explain why McKaig was being handed Green Technology bills and in turn billing GUA for the work.
Georgia governor appoints Bibb County judge to Supreme Court
ATLANTA (AP) — A Bibb County judge was appointed Tuesday to the Georgia Supreme Court by Gov. Brian Kemp.
Judge Verda M. Colvin has previously been appointed to the Georgia Court of Appeals by Kemp and is the first African American woman to be named to either court by a Republican governor.
“With Justice Colvin on the bench, Georgia’s highest court is gaining an immensely talented and principled judge who will help guide it in the years to come,” Kemp said in a statement.
Colvin also is a former state and federal prosecutor and was a judge on the Superior Court in Macon. She replaces Harold Melton, who recently left the Georgia Supreme Court to enter private practice.
Melton was the only Black judge on the Supreme Court and just the third in the high court’s history.
Also on Tuesday, Kemp appointed Georgia Solicitor General Andrew Pinson to fill Colvin’s seat on the Court of Appeals.
Judge exonerates man who served 20 years in Georgia slayings
BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A judge on Monday dismissed all charges against a man convicted of the 1985 slayings of a couple at a south Georgia church, exonerating him after he spent two decades behind bars, the man’s attorneys said.
Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett granted a motion by prosecutors to dismiss the case against Dennis Perry, 59. Scarlett last year gave Perry the chance for a new trial after DNA recovered from the crime scene matched a different suspect during reinvestigation of the case. He also ordered Perry’s release from prison while prosecutors decided whether to refile charges.
Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins, who took office in January, decided not to pursue the case.
“There are times when seeking justice means righting a wrong,” Higgins said, according to WTLV-TV. “While this case was prosecuted prior to my administration, the new evidence indicates that someone else murdered Harold and Thelma Swain.”
Perry, who had maintained his innocence, said in a statement he “knew that eventually someone else would see the truth.”
“This indictment has been hanging over my head for over 20 years, and it’s such a relief to finally not have to worry about being accused of this awful thing,” he said.
The Swains were killed inside Rising Daughters Baptist Church in Waverly, Georgia, in 1985.
Perry was convicted in 2003 largely on the testimony of his ex-girlfriend’s mother, who said Perry had told her he planned to kill Harold Swain. The state didn’t disclose to the defense that the woman was paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony. Perry received two consecutive life sentences in prison.
The new DNA evidence has cast suspicion on another man in the slaying. Authorities were led to that suspect after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found his alibi was fabricated, Perry’s attorneys say.
“We are thrilled that Dennis and his family can now begin the long process of recovery and healing,” said Jennifer Whitfield, an attorney with the Georgia Innocence Project, which along with the King & Spalding law firm helped secure Perry’s exoneration. “It takes so little to convict, and yet so much to undo a wrongful conviction.”
Georgia’s lottery closes year with record $1.54B in profits
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s lottery saw profits leap again as gamblers kept reaching for lottery tickets and online games even as other entertainment opportunities reopened.
The Georgia Lottery Corp. announced Monday that it had turned over $1.54 billion in profits to the state in the budget year that ended June 30, up from last year’s record in $1.24 billion.
It’s the 10th straight year the lottery has set sales and profit records. Proceeds from the lottery finance college aid called Hope Scholarships and preschool classes.
Lottery sales initially dipped during the pandemic last spring but came roaring back, especially as more people began using online games. Officials said that strong performance continued in the just-concluded year.
“Coming out of a difficult year, these Georgia Lottery numbers are welcomed good news for both our students and our economy,” Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement.
The lottery said profits were aided by strong sales across the board, including scratch-off tickets, big multistate jackpots in the MegaMillions and Powerball games and the lottery’s online games. The lottery said in-store coin-operated amusement machines, which are regulated by the lottery, also contributed.
Sports betting and casino gambling remain illegal in Georgia, with lawmakers spurning efforts to legalize them again this year.
The Georgia Lottery Corp. says it has transferred $23.8 billion since it began, benefitting more than 1.9 million college students and more than 1.6 million prekindergarten students.
Woman killed, 17 others injured in Georgia interstate crash
WOODBINE, Ga. (AP) — A Florida woman was killed and 17 others injured after an interstate crash involving several vehicles near the Georgia coast, authorities said.
The wreck happened Saturday afternoon on Interstate 95 in Camden County, according to the Georgia State Patrol.
The wreck sent a semi-trailer and SUV careening through a guardrail into oncoming traffic, WMAZ-TV reported. The initial investigation found that the semi driver lost control and traveled across the northbound lanes hitting a Volkswagen Tiguan.
A pickup truck, a Volkswagen Passat, a Chevrolet Tahoe and a Dodge Dakota were also struck, WMAZ reported.
Killed the crash was the driver of the Passat: Cheryl Enslen, 67, of Jupiter, Florida.
The 17 other victims from five vehicles were taken by ambulance and helicopter to hospitals in south Georgia and north Florida.
ATLANTA (AP) — Barring reporters from court for one part of jury selection in the upcoming murder trial of three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery would violate well-established precedent and be a “striking step in the wrong direction,” media outlets, including The Associated Press, said Tuesday in a court filing.
Attorneys for two of the defendants have asked a Georgia judge to keep media outlets out of the courtroom when lawyers question potential jurors to determine whether they have biases in the widely publicized case. They say it’s critical that potential jurors feel as comfortable as possible answering questions about race and other sensitive topics to ensure that Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael are tried by an impartial jury.
The white father and son are charged with murder in the February 2020 killing of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after the McMichaels spotted him running in their neighborhood outside the coastal port city of Brunswick. A neighbor who joined the pursuit, William “Roddie” Bryan, was also charged with murder.
The U.S. and Georgia Supreme Courts have held that the questioning of potential jurors — a process known as voir dire — must be open to the public and press, attorneys for the media outlets said in their filing. Closure can only be considered in “extraordinary circumstances” when a potential juror makes that request and evidence shows public questioning would significantly harm the person’s privacy, they added.
The other outlets are The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CNN, Cox Media Group for Action News Jax, WSB-TV and radio and Gannett, publisher of USA Today.
Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said he was not surprised media outlets were objecting. He believes in an open courtroom, but “in limited circumstances, the defendant’s right to a fair trial can and will trump” that, he said.
“In order to ascertain which jurors are suitable to serve in a case such as this case — one that has accumulated more pretrial publicity than most — we have to create the best environment for jurors to share their true thoughts, beliefs, biases and prejudices,” he said in a phone interview.
Arbery’s killing sparked a national outcry last year amid protests over racial injustice. The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck when they spotted him running in their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
All three defendants have said they committed no crimes. Defense attorneys say the McMichaels had a valid reason to pursue Arbery, thinking he was a burglar, and that Travis McMichael shot him in self-defense as Arbery grappled for his shotgun.
The media outlets said in their filing that publicity was not sufficient to try to “stifle informed public discussion or reporting on a case,” and the defense had failed to show evidence that its clients would face bias under an open process.
They cited the high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the slaying of George Floyd, noting that a judge in that case required potential jurors be questioned in public.
“To foster public confidence in the fairness of the trial and the verdict reached by the jury, it is vital that the public and press be permitted to observe all portions of the trial, including voir dire,” they said.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has scheduled a hearing with attorneys Thursday to discuss pretrial motions and jury selection, which is scheduled for October. Neither he nor prosecutors have weighed in on the request to bar reporters from voir dire.
Kemp: Anti-crime bills will be part of fall special session
ATLANTA (AP) — Republican leaders are promising quick legislative action to fight violent crime in Atlanta as the House begins hearings on crime in Georgia’s largest city.
Gov. Brian Kemp told the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee on Monday that he would include anti-crime proposals for lawmakers to consider this fall when they return for a special session to redraw electoral districts.
House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge said House leaders will propose $2 million to pay for 20 new state troopers to focus on tactical response and drunken driving enforcement in Atlanta. Ralston wants another $1 million to double to the size of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s anti-gang task force and Attorney General Chris Carr’s anti-human-trafficking task force.
The hearing came days after Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms proposed a $70 million crime-fighting plan that includes 250 more police officers, working to alter violent behavior and tracking repeat offenders to make sure they’re convicted. She also wants to install 10,000 more streetlights, crack down on illegal after-hours clubs and add 250 license plate reader cameras. The Atlanta City Council would have to approve the spending.
Ralston said in remarks delivered by video from Savannah that he didn’t want “to point blame or have a political discussion.” But both Kemp and Carr criticized some elected officials for their approaches to crime.
“The dangerous criminals in these gangs aren’t letting up. In fact, because local leadership in our capital city has created an anti-police, soft-on-crime environment, the task force’s work, in my opinion, is needed now more than ever,” Kemp said, reiterating criticism of Bottoms.
Ahead of 2022 state elections, many Republicans are trying to make the case that voters shouldn’t trust Democrats on crime, even though state government has traditionally had a limited role in fighting crime, with most of the responsibility falling to local sheriffs, police departments and district attorneys. Kemp has repeatedly touted state police efforts to cut down on street racing and stunt driving. Troopers have formed a six-person crime suppression unit to arrest fugitives, but troopers have little role in investigating local shootings, a key concern.
Carr said some district attorneys weren’t doing enough to prosecute cases, singling out District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, who covers Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties. Gonzalez has said that more people who are arrested should be released before trial without requiring cash bail, that she won’t prosecute some low-level drug cases and that she won’t seek the death penalty. That’s prompted pushback, especially from officials in Republican-dominated Oconee County.
“If they don’t like it, they should run for the legislature and change the law that way,” Carr told committee members. “I think it is dangerous for a member of the executive branch or the judicial branch to say I’m just not going to enforce the law.”
Carr suggested such prosecutors could be charged with violating their oath of office, although he said such a prosecution could be “difficult.”
Gonzalez said she was elected to stop “misusing resources on minor offenses.”
“Violent crime is a serious problem, and if AG Carr wants to stop playing politics and work together on addressing it, I am ready to do so,” she said in a statement.
While Carr said increased violent crime “is being driven in large part by criminal street gangs,” Assistant Atlanta Police Chief Todd Coyt said that the city’s police can only definitively link two homicides this year to gangs. He said most shootings are driven by disputes among people who already know each other.
“We believe that most of the homicides and aggravated assaults are due to a lack of conflict resolution,” Coyt said, adding that police can’t “arrest ourselves out of this problem.”
“You all keep focusing on Atlanta,” Coyt said. “What’s happening in Atlanta is not just Atlanta. This is a regional issue. It’s a national issue.”
Senate Democrats take their case for voting bill to Georgia
ATLANTA (AP) — Taking their case for a federal voting bill to Georgia, Senate Democrats argued at a field hearing on Monday that their sweeping elections measure is desperately needed to counter the impact of new GOP state laws that tighten voting rules.
“Congress must take action on voting rights, and we have no time to spare,” U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia, said in testimony before the Senate Rules Committee. “We Americans live in a great house that democracy built, and right now that house is on fire.”
Democrats used the rare field hearing in Atlanta to gain attention for their voting and elections overhaul, which remains blocked by unified Republican opposition and disagreement among Senate Democrats about whether to change procedural rules in the evenly divided Senate to get it passed.
Without a clear path forward, Democrats are seeking to keep the spotlight on voting issues, as they search for other ways to pass less sweeping voting proposals. On Sunday, committee chair Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Democrats were considering adding financial incentives for states to adopt new voting procedures into a multitrillion-dollar bill bolstering environmental and social programs.
Monday’s hearing was held in a conference room at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, which senators called a powerful reminder of the long struggle for voting rights in the U.S.
“We are here today in Atlanta to shine a spotlight on what has been happening in Georgia and in states around the country to undermine the freedom to vote,” said Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.
The federal bill, known as the For the People Act, would create minimum voting standards in the U.S., such as same-day and automatic voter registration, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. The bill would also change various campaign finance and ethics laws.
Republicans, though, have united in opposition, calling the bill a Democratic power grab and saying the changes amount to a federal takeover of elections, which are administered in the U.S. at the state and local level.
No Republicans attended the hearing, and they did not provide witnesses.
“This silly stunt is based on the same lie as all the Democrats’ phony hysteria from Georgia to Texas to Washington D.C. and beyond — their efforts to pretend that moderate, mainstream state voting laws with more generous early-voting provisions than blue states like New York are some kind of evil assault on our democracy,” GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
Republicans last month blocked an effort to debate the Democratic bill, and Democrats will have to decide whether they want to change Senate filibuster rules to ultimately pass the bill. At least two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have said they oppose eliminating the filibuster rule.
Manchin, who initially opposed the bill, has crafted a new version that would remove some of the more contentious provisions and add a national ID requirement, something Democrats had not previously advocated for.
Much of Monday’s hearing focused on a GOP-backed elections bill that was signed into law by Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year.
The Georgia law adds a voter ID requirement for mail ballots, shortens the time period for requesting a mailed ballot and results in fewer ballot drop boxes available in metro Atlanta. Several lawsuits have been filed over the law, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We desperately need your help,” Georgia state Sen. Sally Harrell, a Democrat from metro Atlanta, told the senators during the hearing. “Where you live shouldn’t determine how hard it is to vote or whether or not your vote counts. This is the time to take action, to pass national voting standards, and I implore you to do so.”
Georgia Republicans have pushed back against claims that their election law makes it harder to vote, noting the state offers many of the measures being sought by Democrats in the federal bill, such as early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and automatic registration.
Kemp, speaking to reporters on a call organized by the Republican National Committee, called Monday’s hearing a publicity stunt and defended Georgia’s new voting law as a “common-sense reform measure.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the DOJ, the DNC or the Senate Democrats, we aren’t backing down,” he said. “We’re going to continue to fight for the truth and we’re going to stand up for secure, accessible and fair elections.”