ATLANTA - Was Delta Air Lines secretly funding a nonprofit organization fighting a commercial airport in Paulding county? The Georgia Court of Appeals will soon decide if that question should be answered in an ongoing legal battle.
Lawyers for the company trying to expand the Paulding county airport believe it is Delta airlines. They have attorney client logs, draft resolutions written by Delta attorneys, and even a podcast to back up their claim.
But, during arguments before a panel of judges, lawyers argued the Committee to Protect Paulding County has a first amendment right to remain anonymous.
In 2013, the Paulding county commission announced plans to turn its small airport, Silver Comet Field, into one large enough to handle commercial jets.
But, an anonymous grassroots committee appeared on the scene to fight the proposed expansion. And Silver Comet wants to force that committee to identify its financial backer.
“It is Delta who is behind all of this. They are the man behind the curtain who has been pulling the strings,” said Silver comet Terminal Partners lawyer Tony Cochran.
Cochran, arguing before a panel of Georgia Court of Appeals judges, said Delta airlines is the power and money behind the Committee to Protect Paulding County.
“They keep saying they are a grassroots organization. They are AstroTurf manufactured by Delta airlines in the corporate office,” said Cochran.
In 2013 the Paulding commission announced that Silver Comet Terminal Partners would bring commercial jets to the Paulding County airport. An agreement, many in the county, felt was underhanded.
Two years later, a new set of commissioners led by Todd Pownall and Vernon Collett introduced a resolution to effectively kill the expansion.
Ultimately, a law suit was filed by Paulding County against Silver comet Terminal Partners. Silver Comet wants the Committee to Protect Paulding County to identify whether Delta Air Lines financially supported the committee. That issue is now before the Georgia court of appeals.
The committee attorney, Tippi Burch, told judges the committee is entitled, under the 1st amendment, to participate and have anonymous speech.
Burch argued the first amendment protects anyone who sets up a grassroots nonprofit like the Committee to Protect Paulding County. Especially in a high profile political battle.
“You can certainly see where there are situations, including this one where you may not want the community to know what side of an issue you fall on,” said Burch.
Tony Cochran, Silver Comet's attorney argued the committee supported new anti-airport expansion commissioners and then helped those commissioners craft legislation to kill the deal.
“Chip Lake said there wasn't but one purpose of this committee. Kill commercial service,” said Cochran.
But attorney Don Geary, representing the treasurer of the committee, argued it doesn't matter who created the committee. His reasoning: because the Paulding county commission - not the committee - voted to effectively kill the airport expansion.
“All they want to do, as the judge, they want to get into court and they want to scream. Delta, the big corporation stopped Paulding County from getting rich. They want to do David and Goliath,” Geary said after the hearing.
A ruling is not expected for four or five months. All three of the Paulding County Commissioners who voted to effectively kill the airport expansion face opposition in the upcoming primary.