Out of Commission
Two members of the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission have resigned, and Gov. Brian Kemp has made several new appointments following my investigation into the terms and eligibility of the board that oversees state-run Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Marietta Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera and White County Schools Assistant Superintendent Scott Justus had both been serving on the board since 2018.
The Georgia Public Telecommunications Act explicitly bars public school officials from serving.
“I have been made aware that my service to the State is in violation of Ga Code O.C.G.A. 20–13–2 and I have been asked to resign,” Justus wrote in a resignation email dated September 15th and obtained through an Open Records Request.
“I was asked to serve by Governor Nathan Deal and specifically to assist GPB in establishing K-12 criteria to better align GPB’s future expansion of virtual classroom curriculum.”
In addressing the code, the letter states:
“…having served on the GAPSC for nine years and having been chair of the ethics committee for the last two of those nine, I can assure you my intent was to serve Georgia and not to be in violation of any code section. Governor Deal is a personal friend of my family, and I don’t think he would have intentionally placed me on a board that was in violation of the code above.”
Justus assigned no blame to GPB for not catching the violation before his appointment and praised its CEO Teya Ryan as “way ahead of her peers in other states.”
Grant Rivera’s letter is more succinct and dated Oct. 4th. It also cites his position as the reason for his resignation and adds “I have been honored to serve as a member of the GPB Board and am proud of the work this organization continues to do for education across Georgia.”
Interestingly, Gov. Kemp’s Executive Orders announcing their replacements are both dated Sept. 14th.
Neither Justus nor Rivera replied to my emails seeking comment.
In addition to these Sept. replacements Gov. Kemp made several appointments in July.
On July 1st:
· Reappointing Mary Ellen Imlay.
· Adjusting Camilla Knowles term to run until 2022. It had sat vacant for over a year at the time of her appointment in 2018.
On July 16th:
· Appointing Gregory William Garrett to replace John Stephenson whose term expired in 2019. (Stephenson continued to serve for over two years including at the Commission’s meeting on July 14th of this year.)
· Officially appointing Sloane Drake. She was supposedly appointed by Gov. Deal in 2016
But in my research, I could find no official Executive Order.
Neither, it seems, could Gov. Kemp’s office. Its Executive Order makes no mention of a reappointment or succession.
Terms and Conditions
These changes came after I began asking both GPB and the governor’s office about the various discrepancies this past spring.
In pointing them out I even wondered whether the Commission would have a legal, functioning quorum after terms expired June 30th.
Neither GPB nor Gov. Kemp’s office responded to me directly but did discuss the problems in emails to each other.
Initially, Ryan gives conflicting information and seems uncertain when terms begin or end.
Knowles, Rivera, Justus, and four other Commissioners were all appointed by Gov. Deal in Sept. of 2018.
Ryan’s dates suggest all seven run for 4 years from the date of Deal’s appointment, even though the GPTC Act calls for staggered terms and several were vacant at the time of Deal’s Commission packing in 2018.
She also says terms run by calendar instead of fiscal year.
In an email dated June 23rd, she responds to some of my questions and insists changes to GPB’s bylaws meant public school officials could now serve.
But bylaws can’t supersede a governing statute.
In a June 23rd email, Candice Broce of the Gov.’s office asks Ryan if she has an issue with her sharing the information. Ryan says “No, that is fine.”
However, Broce didn’t share Ryan’s answers with me at the time. Perhaps because upon checking, they were found to be inaccurate.
The Deal Era
Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and Scott Justus’ letter noted his family friendship with Gov. Deal in taking the position.
Why Deal’s office appointed two ineligible Commissioners and nobody at GPB objected is an interesting question.
A 2018 Deal press release announcing their appointments even noted their positions.
The appointments were subject to confirmation by the State Senate which did so during a special session the following Nov.
But GPB has often been a plaything of state politicians.
In late 2012 Gov. Deal urged GPB to hire State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers for a $150,000 a year salary.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Political Insider” column lambasted the move as blatant cronyism and noted the passive inaction of its board.
“’Another board member on the broadcast was Bert Brantley, former spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. ‘There is that independence,’ Brantley said. ‘It’s a state-owned media, but not in the sense you’d see [in] other countries, where the state runs the media and delivers the content.’
So there’s the good news. We’re not a recreation of the Soviet Union. But we may be reliving Machiavelli’s Italy.”
Brantley now works in the Kemp administration.
At the same time in 2012 GPB agreed to hire Chip Rogers it began secret negotiations with Georgia State University to give the network daytime control of student funded WRAS 88.5 FM.
This would bring it into direct competition with Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s independent NPR affiliate WABE.
Rogers’ tenure at GPB remained controversial and he was eventually ousted in April of 2014, with Gov. Deal’s office again orchestrating the move, as reported by AJC’s “Political Insider” column.
Days later, the Agreement between GPB and GSU was announced during finals week at the campus.
The AJC helped distract from that news by putting GSU’s Turner Field redevelopment plans on its front page and an exclusive interview with President Mark Becker held at the paper’s own offices.
GPB on 88.5 debuted amidst widespread public protests and demands for an investigation. But the AJC left any reporting to its radio and entertainment reporter while its Political Insiders all became immediate guests on GPB’s Political Rewind.
An earlier Open Records Request shows evidence of Cox Media colluding with GPB for control of WRAS.
The AJC, it seems, is itself capable of being Machiavellian.
Audits and Auditors
Since 2018 GPB has undergone annual state audits and a Dec. 2019 performance audit of its education resources conducted at the request of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
All its audits somehow missed the ineligible Commissioners. The performance audit even cited the GPTC Act in its report.
Asked why, a representative of the Department of Audits sent a statement saying, “We are not required to express an opinion on compliance.” “…the composition of the Board does not have a direct and material impact on the financials of the entity, and therefore would not have been part of our audit scope.”
The performance audit was limited to educational resources and never touched on GPB directly competing with WABE.
But the Department of Audits is no stranger to GPB.
It was scathing audits in the late 1990s that led state Republicans, then in the minority, to demand Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes fire GPB’s Executive Director, former State Superintendent of Schools Werner Rogers.
Barnes did so along with most of the Commission. And Barnes’ pick for the new Executive Director was state auditor Claude Vickers.
Taking the Public out of Comment
At a Jan. 2015 meeting of the Commission, students and alumni of Album 88 brought evidence of GPB executives using personal email accounts in discussions with GSU officials.
During public comment, they asked the board to fire Ryan.
The board refused and then Commission Chair Michael McDougald issued a statement of support for Ryan’s “integrity.”
McDougald was himself serving on an expired term at the time.
Earlier this year I asked the Attorney General’s office if it had ever investigated GPB for Open Records violations.
It had not. It looks like no one did.
The Commission’s April 2015 meeting was cancelled, and GPB’s new bylaws limited public comment to the discretion of Ryan.
Meantime, the AJC was deepening its relationship with GPB, other local newsrooms kept “partnering” with it, and complaints to NPR and PBS were ignored.
Finding any news outlet willing to cover GPB as a state agency was getting hard to find.
In 2015, Nathan Deal gave a speech at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism on its anniversary. In it, he noted his ability to get a message out without the gatekeeping of legacy media. Almost foreshadowing Donald Trump’s 2016 media strategy, it said, in essence, the press needs me more than I need them.
There was some harrumphing by Georgia’s veteran editors but Deal left office with mostly complimentary send-offs.
He’d had his share of bad press, like a 2013 disclosure that his staff had directly interfered with the Ethics Commission. To appease calls for an investigation, the matter was turned over not to a Special Prosecutor but to the state auditor.
That investigation quickly became a performance audit of the whole Commission, who’s mismanagement became the headline, drowning out the interference.
Deal had beat the press.
Tellingly, no major state politician spoke out against GPB’s takeover of WRAS or Cox Media’s involvement.
The legislature has its own show on GPB Television titled Lawmakers.
Yet despite GPB’s past scandals and anger over its WRAS takeover none of them seemed to have read its governing statute in recent years.
Emails to the Republican and Democratic leaders in the State Senate about why that body overlooked ineligible commissioners were not returned.
They’ll have to confirm Kemp’s new appointments in the Special Session this November.
This year marked Album 88’s fiftieth anniversary, which former CNN journalist and GSU grad student Andreas Preuss celebrated with a radio series and thesis project.
Seven years later, GPB still comes off looking bad.
Calls to “save local journalism” have a new urgency. But with it are rising criticism of the media as an institution.
Are Georgia’s efforts to court Big Philanthropy and newsroom partnerships sincere about finding a sustainable model of local journalism? One that’s more equitable and accountable and doesn’t only cater to the affluent?
Or is the main goal to preserve legacy media players and their access relationships to Lawmakers?
Efforts to save democracy by rewarding the same insiders ring hollow.
Ryan was hired in 2009 as the preferred pick of Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The AJC “Political Insider” column, then still independent from GPB, noted her hiring was a breakthrough of sorts by being an experienced broadcaster instead of a typical state bureaucrat.
Albeit a broadcaster with a decidedly commercial mindset.
“It’s a cliche but stay tuned.
Ryan inherits an arm of state government that has lurched between excess and incompetence.”
In March of this year, Ryan relinquished the title of President to Chief Revenue Officer Bert Wesley Huffman.
Asked if there had been a national search for the new President a GPB representative told me it was just a change in management structure.
Currently Georgia’s Board of Regents is undergoing a search for a new Chancellor. Sonny Perdue is a favorite of some Regents — and political insiders — while faculty, staff, and students are calling for someone with academic experience.
How and when Georgia might pick its next head of Georgia Public Broadcasting is another mystery.
Will it be a transparent and open process?
Or a decision made in backrooms by Lawmakers and Insiders?