Buckhead town chief’s service on state Board of Corrections raises questions of experience and oversight
By John Ruch
With crime as the political engine of the movement in the town of Buckhead, you’d think its leader would be talked about a lot as an official in the state’s criminal justice system.
Yet it’s barely noted in scattered news reports that Bill White, president 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 Governor Brian Kemp is not mentioned in his lengthy BCC biography, and neither he nor the governor responded to questions about it.
Among those questions is why White, a politically connected professional fundraiser with a culinary arts degree with no experience running prisons, was interested and chosen for the job. It is also unclear if and how White was vetted and whether Kemp was aware of his widely reported contact with the New York criminal justice system in 2010, where he reached a settlement with the Attorney General’s office. to pay $1 million and take other actions under the framework. of a criminal investigation into the irregularities of the state pension fund. White never admitted any wrongdoing and was not charged with any crime.
It’s also unclear if and how the August 2020 nomination is tied to the Republican-backed Cities movement. At that time, the city’s movement was merely coalescing through semi-public virtual meetings with leaders who refused to identify themselves. White appeared publicly, along with other BCC leaders, about six months later, first as the group’s fundraiser and later as a public face and leader. The city has since become an issue in the 2022 gubernatorial race, with Kemp remaining evasive, his Republican challenger David Perdue supporting a referendum and Democrat Stacey Abrams in opposition.
One certainty is that White joined the BOC at a crucial time when the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) is facing legal action and a civil rights investigation by the US Department of Justice related to conditions in the prisons of state and an increase in suicides and homicides within them. it was not part of the law and order debate regarding the town of Buckhead.
The BOC sets policies for employees and inmates of Georgia state prisons, which are operated by the GDC. According to the council’s webpage, this policy making includes “the assignment, housing, feeding, clothing, treatment, discipline, rehabilitation, training and hospitalization of all inmates placed under its keep”.
The board has 19 members representing areas that correspond to congressional districts as well as statewide seats. All are appointed by the Governor for a five-year term.
Kemp nominated White to the seat in the 11th congressional district with an executive order dated August 20, 2020, for a term until August 19, 2025. There does not appear to be any urgency to the nomination, as BOC minutes show. and other documents show the seat had been vacant for several months and had been occupied 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 nomination was quickly withdrawn after further public controversy over an old photo of him wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood in what he said was a Halloween costume. Garrison’s BOC term expired in January 2018, per Kemp’s executive order, but he continued to serve, with BOC meeting minutes eventually ceasing to list him as a member after January 2020.
Unlike the ex-sheriff he replaced, White has no experience running jails or prisons. As an information site Georgia Virtue recently reported, the same can be said for about two-thirds of BOC members, who can make up for what they lack in experience with a multitude of political connections. Among the other members of the BOC is Janelle King, a former Georgia Republican Party event planner and staffer who later served as a panelist on FOX’s political talk show 5. The Georgia Gang.
White has long raised large sums for major political candidates, including former Presidents Obama and Trump, and is a friend of the Trump family. His ties to Kemp are unclear. State campaign finance records show he donated $2,000 to Kemp’s campaign in 2018, years before the BOC was nominated, 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 job. The governor’s office responded to an open records request for any documents related to White’s candidacy and nomination — even just a resume — saying “our office does not have reactive records.” The nomination was one of 25 listed in a press release from the governor’s office at the time which gave brief biographies of those named but no explanation of why they were selected.
BOC members are not paid, according to the GDC, but are entitled to a $105 per diem and reimbursement for mileage to attend monthly meetings. According to GDC records, White attended his first in-person BOC meeting and requested to receive the per diem and an $86.25 mileage reimbursement. He has attended all meetings since then, but unlike most other members, he has done so remotely via conference call. He received no payment or reimbursement for those meetings, according to GDC records.
About a year after White joined the BOC, the GDC faced significant legal and political controversy over prison conditions. In September, the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a major investigation into Georgia prisons, including inmate violence, understaffing and abuse of LGBTQ inmates. It’s in part a relaunch of a 2016 DOJ investigation into the treatment of LGBTQ prisoners that stalled under the Trump administration, as Project Q Atlanta reported.
The DOJ investigation followed complaints from attorneys, particularly the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), who welcomed the response. “In 20 years of prison work, I have never seen such horrific and chaotic conditions in Georgia prisons,” SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi said in a press release at the time, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic was an aggravating factor. “The violence, the treatment of sick people and the apathy of those who run the prisons are unconscionable and unacceptable.”
Also in September, SCHR filed a lawsuit against the GDC alleging inhumane solitary confinement conditions at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. The lawsuit alleges prolonged use of solitary confinement and conditions such as vermin infestations, non-functioning toilets and a lack of psychological care that lead inmates to self-harm and violence.
And in December, the family of a transgender woman who killed herself at Valdosta State Prison settled a $2.2 million lawsuit whose complaint included an allegation that a guard encouraged the inmate to commit suicide a few minutes before her.
“The GDC is committed to ensuring the safety of all offenders in its custody and denies engaging in any pattern or practice of violating their civil rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence” , said GDC spokeswoman Lori Benoit. a written statement. “This commitment includes protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault. We fully cooperated with the USDOJ’s initial investigation in 2016 and are proud of our team’s service and dedication since then to succeed during unprecedented challenges.
BOC minutes show little to no discussion of those conditions since then, aside from several presentations on COVID-19 precautions and policies. Much of the business includes presentations on other policies, real estate transactions and honorary items like a resolution recognizing National Nurses Week on behalf of prison staff.
The minutes indicate that White has not made any motions or made any significant comments on agenda items during his service thus far.
Correction: An older version of this story incorrectly named Janelle King as a current rather than former Georgia Gang panelist.