ATLANTA - Was Delta Airl Lines the money and power behind a nonprofit group formed to fight a second regional airport in Paulding county?
That question is at the heart of a complex court case heading to the Georgia Court of appeals.
The battle whether to expand Paulding county’s airport for commercial flights has waged on for years in Paulding county. During the debate, the Committee to Protect Paulding County emerged - fighting the expansion. Now, Silver Comet Terminal Partners - who wants to bring commercial jets to the airport, is in court trying to expose who is behind the Committee.
Tucked inside a dense forest of Georgia pines, far from the hustle of the city, lies the Paulding County airport, known as Silver Comet Field. It's small with small planes.
In 2013, that all changed when the Paulding County commission took a surprise turn. They announced that they had an agreement with Propeller Investments to expand the airport for commercial use.
That surprise announcement, considered underhanded by many, touched off a wave of citizen protests, lawsuits funded by anonymous donors, and an aggressive campaign to kill the deal by a mysterious nonprofit group called Committee to Protect Paulding County.
Who's that? The committee has its own Facebook page, but won't say whose behind it. By law, they don't have to. But, Silver Comet thinks Delta Air Lines is waging a secret war against a potential airport competitor. And they want Delta to admit it in court.
This fight starts with the Paulding County Commission in here. Two years after the surprise announcement, January 13, 2015, county commissioner Todd Pownall dropped his own bombshell.
His well-crafted resolution 15-01 basically pulled the plug on the commercial airport plans. Pownall told the public he and fellow commissioner Vernon Collett wrote the resolution with no outside help.
But according to court records, a Delta lawyer admitted that “90 to 95 percent” of the commissioner's resolution was identical to “draft resolutions” created by Delta Airlines “for Paulding County Board of Commissioners."
Dale: But if you created it, why would a draft you had be so similar to a draft that a Delta lawyer had?
Pownall: That. That part I don't know. And I don't know when they got that draft.
In that same lawsuit Silver Comet Terminal obtained copies of legal communications that showed, even though Delta wasn't named in the suit, there were dozens of emails written to or by Delta lawyers regarding the airport dispute.
Terry Tibbitts, is the Paulding County Airport director. He has seen the logs.
“These are not junior employees of Delta, these are senior counsel, executive vice president, these are high ranking corporate officials who are tracking very closely what's going on at this airport.”
Tibbitts says the logs, including numerous emails with the subject line "draft resolutions for Paulding County Board of Commissioners" should make it clear to anyone that Delta is behind the Committee to Protect Paulding County.
“Do I personally believe it? Absolutely,” Tibbitts said.
A tax exempt nonprofit 501(c)(4) set up like The Committee to Protect Paulding County doesn't have to identify where the money comes from. It has a first amendment right to keep financial donors anonymous.
There is very little public information. Tax records show Chip Lake, a well-known local political consultant was the principal officer. Contributions total $228,100. The committee spent the bulk of its money on consulting fees for a company controlled by Chip Lake.
In court depositions Lake would not name his client. But, outside of court, Lake appeared on a business podcast, and explained his political consulting job. He gave an example of how one of his clients was an Atlanta airline fighting airport expansion in Georgia.
“There is a major airliner in Atlanta and I can't say, I can't give the name of the client, but there are a couple different major airliners in Atlanta and they are fighting an airport expansion for a regional airport on the western side of the state.”
“Man I was shocked. I was really surprised to hear him say it, said councilman Vernon Collett. “I don't know why he said it. Don't know if that's (Delta) his client or not.”
Later, in court records Lake explained he was not under oath during the podcast and that Delta was not his client.
Terry Tibbits is convinced he's fighting Delta. He just wants a fair fight.
“Well obviously we would prefer not to fight Delta, but given that we're in this fight with Delta, we would prefer a level playing field,” said Tibbitts.
Commissioners Collett and Pownall say they don't know for sure who is behind the committee, and it doesn't really matter to them because they feel the original airport expansion agreement was done in secret and was wrong.
“I took up the fight because of the wrongdoing. And that's what I'll continue to do,” Pownall said.
Delta is not a party to the lawsuit at issue, filed an amicus brief in the case. A Delta spokesperson told us “we are weighing in on this appeal to defend our own right and the right of any other Georgia citizen under the First Amendment to engage in protected political activity without fear of harassment by litigants like Silver Comet in private litigation.”
The Georgia Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the case on Tuesday.