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Buckhead cityhood leader’s service on state Board of Corrections raises questions of experience, oversight

Bill White, chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee and member of the Georgia Board of Corrections.

By John Ruch

With crime as a political driver of the Buckhead cityhood movement, you’d think much would be said about its leader serving as an official in the state criminal justice system.

Yet it’s barely noted in scattered news reports that Bill White, chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee (BCC), is also a member of the Georgia Board of Corrections (BOC), which oversees state prisons. White’s 2020 appointment by Gov. Brian Kemp goes unmentioned in his lengthy BCC bio, and neither he nor the governor responded to questions about it.

Among those questions is why White, a politically connected professional fundraiser and holder of a culinary arts degree with no experience running prisons, was interested in and chosen for the position. Also unclear is if and how White was vetted and whether Kemp was aware of his widely reported 2010 brush with the criminal justice system in New York, where he struck an agreement with the state Attorney General’s office to pay $1 million and undertake other actions as part of a criminal investigation into state pension fund improprieties. White never acknowledged any wrongdoing and was not charged with any crime.

Also murky is if and how the August 2020 appointment relates to the Republican-backed cityhood movement. At that time, the cityhood movement was just coalescing through semi-public virtual meetings with leaders who refused to identify themselves. White emerged publicly, along with other BCC leaders, about six months later, first as the group’s fundraiser and later as its public face and chief. Cityhood has since become an issue in the 2022 gubernatorial race, with Kemp remaining noncommittal, his Republican challenger David Perdue backing a referendum, and Democrat Stacey Abrams in opposition.

One certainty is that White joined the BOC at a crucial moment when the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) is facing lawsuits and a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation related to conditions in state prisons and a spike in suicides and homicides within them — issue that has not been part of the law-and-order debate over Buckhead cityhood.

The BOC sets policies for employees and inmates of Georgia’s state prisons, which are operated by the GDC. According to the board’s webpage, that policy-making includes “the assignment, housing, feeding, clothing, treatment, discipline, rehabilitation, training and hospitalization of all inmates coming under its custody.”

The board has 19 members representing areas that match Congressional districts as well as statewide at-large seats. All are appointed by the governor to five-year terms.

Kemp appointed White to the 11th Congressional District seat with an Aug. 20, 2020, executive order for a term running to Aug. 19, 2025. There did not appear to be an urgency to the appointment, as BOC minutes and other records show the seat was vacant for several months and had been held for the previous two years by a member continuing to serve beyond an expired term.

That member was Roger Garrison, a former Cherokee County sheriff. White’s appointment to the BOC coincided with Garrison’s appointment to the investigative panel of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Committee by state House of Representatives Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge). Garrison’s appointment was quickly withdrawn after renewed public controversy over an old photo of him wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood in what he has said was a joke Halloween costume. Garrison’s BOC term expired in January 2018, according to Kemp’s executive order, but he continued serving, with BOC meeting minutes finally ceasing to list him as a member after January 2020.

Unlike the ex-sheriff he replaced, White has no experience in running jails or prisons. As the news site the Georgia Virtue recently reported, the same can be said for roughly two-thirds of BOC members, who may make up what they lack in experience with a wealth of political connections. Among other BOC members is Janelle King, a former Georgia Republican Party event organizer and staffer who was later a panelist on FOX 5’s political talk show The Georgia Gang.

White has long raised large sums for major political candidates, including former Presidents Obama and Trump, and is a Trump family friend. His connections to Kemp are unclear. State campaign finance records show he donated $2,000 to Kemp’s campaign in 2018, years before the BOC appointment, and another $2,500 in April 2021, several months after the appointment.

A spokesperson for Kemp did not respond to questions about how White was vetted and chosen for the position. The Governor’s Office responded to an open records request for any documents relating to White’s application and nomination — even just a resume — by saying “our office has no responsive records.” The appointment was one of 25 listed on a Governor’s Office press release at the time that gave brief biographies of appointees but no explanation of the reason for their selections.

BOC members are not paid, according to the GDC, but are eligible for a $105 per diem payment and mileage reimbursement for attending monthly meetings. According to GDC records, White attended his first BOC meeting in person and filed to receive the per diem and a mileage reimbursement of $86.25. He has attended all meetings since then, but unlike most other members, has done so remotely by conference call. He has not received payments or reimbursements for those meetings, according to GDC records.

About a year after White joined the BOC, the GDC faced significant legal and political controversy about prison conditions. In September, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a major investigation into Georgia prisons, including inmate violence, under-staffing and abuse of LGBTQ inmates. In part that is a revival of a 2016 DOJ probe into treatment of LGBTQ prisoners that stalled under the Trump administration, as Project Q Atlanta reported.

The DOJ investigation followed complaints from advocates, particularly the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), which praised the response. “In 20 years doing prison work, I have never seen such horrific and chaotic conditions in Georgia prisons,” said SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi in a press release at the time, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic was an aggravating factor. “The violence, the treatment of people who are ill, and the apathy of those who run the prisons are unconscionable and unacceptable.”

Also in September, the SCHR filed a lawsuit against GDC alleging inhumane conditions of solitary confinement at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. The lawsuit alleges prolonged use of solitary and conditions that include vermin infestations, non-functioning toilets and a lack of psychological care that leads inmates to self-injury and violence.

And in December, the family of a transgender woman who committed suicide at Valdosta State Prison settled for $2.2 million a lawsuit whose complaint included an allegation that a guard encouraged the inmate to kill herself minutes before she did.

“The GDC is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody and denies that it has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating their civil rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence,” said GDC spokesperson Lori Benoit in a written statement. “This commitment includes the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. We cooperated fully with the USDOJ’s initial investigation in 2016 and are proud of the service and dedication of our team since then to perform during unprecedented challenges.”

BOC minutes show little or no discussion of such conditions since then, aside from several presentations on COVID-19 precautions and policies. Much of the business includes presentations on other policies, property transactions and honorary items like a resolution recognizing National Nurses Week on behalf of prison staff.

The minutes indicate that White has not made motions or made significant commentary on agenda items during his service so far.

Correction: A former version of this story incorrectly named Janelle King as a current, rather than former, Georgia Gang panelist.

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3 Comments

  1. Concerned Citizen January 19, 2022 9:27 am

    Wife has made statements that Buckhead City with ship city inmates 4-hours away from family, friends, and their attorneys in retaliation for any alleged misdemeanor committed in the city to an undisclosed location in South Georgia. This will hamper inmates Constitutionally protected Due Process Rights of Access to Courts and their attorneys. This will also greatly harm family connections which are critical for rehabilitation. This inhuman action will also penalize children and other family members from contact due to a minor misdemeanor offense. He also stated once released, they will be abandoned at this undisclosed jail that he has made a back room deal with to keep the city’s prisoners. This sounds like something from Hitter’s Nazi Germany playbook to ship humans out of the city.Report

    Reply
    1. Reasonable Citizen January 21, 2022 7:43 am

      Probably shouldn’t commit a crime in Buckhead City then. Just go somewhere in the CoA, where APD won’t bother you.Report

      Reply
  2. Latricia Helms January 21, 2022 12:23 am

    What happens in dark comed to light eventually.Report

    Reply

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