Georgia Today: Media wants Trump probe released; Cobb's election director; can GA expel lawmakers?
LISTEN: On the Wednesday, April 12 edition of Georgia Today: Media outlets want the full Trump election interference report released; Cobb's election director is retiring; and could Georgia's legislature expel lawmakers like Tennessee's did?
Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Wednesday, April 12. I'm Peter Biello. On today's episode: Media outlets are asking courts to release the full report from the investigation into election interference in Georgia. Two Tennessee lawmakers were expelled from their legislature. Could the same thing happen here? And I'll speak with the director of Cobb County elections, who's retiring this week. These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.
Peter Biello: The Georgia Court of Appeals will soon hear a case brought by several media outlets asking Fulton County to release the report of a special grand jury investigation into election interference. GPB's Stephen Fowler has more.
Stephen Fowler: After a monthslong investigation into efforts by former President Trump and other Republicans to overturn the 2020 election results, the special purpose grand jury in Fulton County wrote a brief report summarizing its recommendations. A Fulton County judge says the report did a good job explaining who the jury thought should be indicted and why and ordered most of it kept under wraps, citing due process concerns. Portions of the court document were made public, but media outlets argued the full report is newsworthy and appealed the judge's decision. All of this comes as Fulton County DA Fani Willis could soon seek indictments from a regular grand jury and as Trump's lawyers attempt to get the entire process thrown out. For GPB News, I'm Stephen Fowler.
Peter Biello: The second of two Tennessee state legislators expelled from office will be returning to the state house. The Memphis council voted today to reinstate Justin J. Pearson. The move comes days after Pearson and Justin Jones were expelled for protesting on the House floor. The move has left many in Georgia wondering if something similar could happen here. GPB's Sarah Kallis has more on why that's unlikely.
Sarah Kallis: That's because Georgia House rules say the first violation is punishable by a fine, not expulsion. After multiple offenses, a member can be removed with a two-thirds majority vote. University of Georgia librarian and historian Ashton Ellett explains.
Ashton Ellett: A party line expulsion, like we saw in Tennessee would be virtually impossible in Georgia because of the way the rules are written. It requires supermajorities to expel legislators in both houses, and there's — neither party has a supermajority.
Sarah Kallis: Georgia has a history of legislative expulsions. In 1868, most of 33 Black members elected to the legislature were expelled for being Black. For GPB News, I'm Sarah Kallis.
Peter Biello: Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law yesterday a bill that increases the penalties for business owners who failed to post required notices about resources for human trafficking victims. Georgia law requires these notices to be posted in both English and Spanish in certain types of businesses, including truck stops, hospitals, airports and government buildings. Business owners who don't post the notices can be fined up to $1,000 for a first conviction and up to $5,000 for a second. Georgia's first lady, Marty Kemp, who has worked to stop human trafficking in Georgia and assist victims, joined the governor yesterday for the bill signing.
Peter Biello: Three construction workers were injured in Savannah yesterday after part of a floor collapsed at a federal courthouse in the city's downtown. Benjamin Payne reports.
Benjamin Payne: A roughly 30-square-foot portion of the third floor collapsed inside the historic three-story building. None of the injuries were critical. Built in the 1890s, it has been largely closed to the public while undergoing a $75 million renovation. The building is one of Savannah's largest, occupying an entire block in the city's downtown historic district. Renovations will be on hold until structural engineers can inspect the courthouse to determine its condition and the cause of the collapse. Its official name is the Tomochichi Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, so named after a Native American chieftain who was instrumental to the founding of the colony of Georgia. For GPB News, I'm Benjamin Payne in Savannah.
Peter Biello: Experts at this year's prescription drug summit in Atlanta are discussing how some states are planning to use their portion of a $26 billion opioid settlement. But GPB's Ellen Eldridge reports information from Georgia is still forthcoming.
Ellen Eldridge: Georgia's share of that settlement is $636 million over 17 years. But so far, the state has not shared information about how that money will be spent. Jeff Breedlove with the Georgia Council for Recovery says that's because state leaders don't have a publicized plan. But that's not the case in some neighboring states.
Jeff Breedlove: What we saw today was the North Carolina model and not the Georgia model. That in and of itself demonstrates our concern. At a national recovery conference hosted in Atlanta, Ga., the model should have been the Georgia model.
Ellen Eldridge: He says the council wants to see a transparent and public process that includes local meetings and surveys of people with lived experience. For GPB News, I'm Ellen Eldridge.
Peter Biello: Atlanta's Tara Theater has surpassed its $50,000 fundraising goal to reopen this spring. Plaza Theater owner Christopher Escobar announced the reopening of the Tara earlier this year after its previous owner, Regal Cinemas, closed the venue last November. Fans have donated and purchased advance gift cards and tickets to meet the fundraising goal, which will enable the Tara to install new equipment, fixtures and furnishings.
Peter Biello: Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler is retiring at the end of this week. Over nearly two decades working on elections in Georgia's third-largest county, she seen changes to the way people vote and the level of trust the public has in the overall process. Janine Eveler is with me now.
Janine Eveler: Oh, it's my pleasure.
Peter Biello: So you've been with Cobb County for 18 years. You've spent a dozen years as director. Why did you choose now to leave?
Janine Eveler: I have always planned on this being the time that I would retire because this is when I would be here long enough and at the right age to collect a pension. And so it's been sort of my career plan to retire in May of '23.
Peter Biello: Elections directors have faced criticism from people who don't trust the elections process, and some have resigned in part because of that. I just wanted to be clear with you on it. Was that at all a factor in your decision?
Janine Eveler: No, it wasn't. Again, it was — it was always part of my plan for my own personal life plan. But obviously, some people have left the industry because of the criticism. I think criticism when done right can just make you better.
Peter Biello: The 2020 election was unprecedented here in Georgia. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work in your office that year and how the resulting fallout impacted you and your staff?
Janine Eveler: Well, that year was rough for a lot of reasons. The pandemic primarily causing several of the elections to be postponed. And so it was one thing added onto another. We had people that were leaving us, coworkers and employees and others. We had facilities that no longer wanted to host elections, and in that same year we had to implement a brand-new voting system. So it was really difficult for a lot of reasons and sort of the perfect storm of problems. So it was a big, big challenge. We were able to finally get through a lot of those challenges. In the November election — went very well, actually. After that, between that November 2020 and the runoffs in January '21, that's when a lot of the tone of criticism changed. There was people following us. There were people writing hateful emails and those kinds of things happened. And that was actually something that we hadn't experienced before.
Peter Biello: Is there an example of some of the positive feedback, you know, feedback done right that you said can improve you? Can you give an example of some positive feedback that you felt helped improve Cobb County elections?
Janine Eveler: Yes, absolutely. So in the time since the 2020 — actually '21 runoff — we've gotten more involvement from both parties and a lot of the public. And they they attend a lot of our testing sessions. They attend a lot of the audits. They're in our office watching what we do, asking questions. And it's been a — it's evolved to be a very good opportunity for us to educate the public that comes in there, that are interested, and for them to challenge us with some of the procedures that they've pointed out that maybe we have a gap where there's something that is not a chain of custody from one area to another, for instance, and we've been able to put things in place to fill that gap and be able to be transparent. And when somebody asks us, "Well, how can you prove X, Y, Z?" Well, we've got something that we can show them that proves that because we've had to prove that. And that's where the criticism or the questions coming in have made us tighten up our procedures and really do things better.
Peter Biello: State lawmakers have recently banned any funding from non-governmental sources to support elections like yours. Republican lawmakers were concerned that groups would use this money to influence the way elections are conducted. Cobb County's received millions in such assistance. Can I ask you what you use that money for and what your take on this law is overall?
Janine Eveler: Yeah. So that was sort of a one-time thing as far as I'm concerned. It was in reaction to the pandemic. It was during that part of, you know, having to do things differently because of the pandemic. So we bought some equipment that's helped us with distancing and has made our operations more efficient. So we — we bought some carriers for the voting systems that allowed us to put all the equipment in one kind of carrier and so that the poll workers aren't right next to each other, you know, transferring germs or whatever and trying to do the work in close proximity. So there are several things that we've purchased to alleviate some of those pressures during that time. But we haven't considered asking for further grants because there isn't a need. But by and large, I really don't have issues with getting funding from my county government. So other counties probably don't have that kind of luxury and some of the small counties may need that extra funding.
Peter Biello: Do you think those smaller counties that might have a need for this money are susceptible to the influence that some lawmakers are worried this money would carry?
Janine Eveler: Well, again, I didn't experience any kind of influence from the grant that I applied for, so I'm not sure that that's a realistic thing that's happening.
Peter Biello: I want to ask you about one of the perhaps more difficult moments in the past few years. Cobb County failed to send out thousands of absentee ballots to voters who requested them last year. The county then agreed to give those voters more time. I wanted to ask you, what would you like people to know about that moment, how it looked from your perspective?
Janine Eveler: Yeah, that was actually very, very discouraging. We do our best to try and make sure that every voter can vote. And that was an instance where procedures weren't followed. A particular employee failed to do what they were supposed to do. And sometimes that's all it takes to have things fall through the cracks. But in the meantime, since that has happened, we're really doing a deep dive on all of our procedures to make sure that there's checks and balances so that one person's failure can't follow through and create that kind of an issue that — that it can get caught later in the process.
Peter Biello: What kind of qualities do you think Cobb County will need in its next director?
Janine Eveler: Well, I think, obviously information about elections in Georgia. So understanding the code and what's required is going to be key. But also just having sort of a thick skin, you know? Not being able to react to some of that criticism, but taking it for what it's worth and trying to improve so that you aren't criticized. Being able to manage the office, having a good operational view of the organization. Those are all some of my key things that I think are important.
Peter Biello: Well, Janine Eveler, outgoing Cobb County elections director, thank you very much for speaking with me and congrats on your retirement.
Janine Eveler: Thank you very much.
Peter Biello: In sports, the Atlanta Hawks secured the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs by beating the Miami Heat 116-105 in a play-in tournament game last night. In baseball, the Braves beat the Cincinnati Reds last night. They play the Reds again for the last of a three-game series at Truist Park tonight. Relief pitcher Michael Tomkins got the win for the Braves last night and Spencer Strider is on the mound tonight.
Peter Biello: This final note before we head out today, the website BetGeorgia.com analyzed hundreds of Google searches to find out which aromas Georgia residents have been searching for the most. Got any guesses? Give you a hint. It's not coffee and it's not flowers. It's gasoline. You wouldn't have guessed that. It's gasoline. Now, the press release from BetGeorgia.com says this means that the smell of gasoline is the state's, quote, "favorite." I am not sure that is a conclusion we can fairly draw from the fact that it is the top search. One of the reasons I know that? The smell of bacon was on the bottom of this list and I'm a vegetarian and even I prefer the smell of bacon to gasoline. Also, there's a lot of reasons to Google the smell of gasoline. And I'm guessing that's not because someone searching for a gasoline-scented candle. For what it's worth, the smell of coffee and cinnamon were the second and third, quote unquote, "favorite."
All right, that is it for today's edition of Georgia Today. If you haven't yet, take a moment now to subscribe to the Georgia Today podcast. That way later on, you will have plenty of time to place your order for a gasoline-scented candle. If you've got feedback for us, let us know. Send it to us by email. The address is GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. And if you like this podcast, leave a review; that'll help other people find it. I'm Peter Biello. Thank you again for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.