While serving in Congress, gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal used his office and staff to help obtain zoning and permits for a landfill behind his Gainesville auto salvage business, according to documents obtained by The Times.
Deal was financially invested in the landfill until 2003 but later helped Ken Cronan, his business partner in Gainesville Salvage and Disposal, with the venture.
Deal and Chris Riley, his campaign manager and former U.S. House chief of staff, were involved in correspondence and meetings with Hall County and Georgia officials up through 2008.
Documents show they met with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and state attorney general about the permitting of the landfill and with Hall County officials over the zoning of the property and a road that runs alongside it.
Campaign spokesman Brian Robinson said there is nothing wrong with Deal's involvement with the landfill project because he was not personally invested in it past 2003. However, Deal signed a permit application that was filed with the state Environmental Protection Division in 2007.
"He knew it was going to be a regulatory morass that was going to require a lot of work with the bureaucracy, and it would just be best if he was not involved as an owner or someone with a financial stake in this once it was determined what Ken wanted to do with the land," Robinson said.
This is not the first time Deal's business dealings have come under scrutiny. Deal was questioned by the Office of Congressional Ethics for sitting in on meetings with Department of Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham about Gainesville Salvage and Disposal's contract with the state.
Deal resigned from his House seat in March to focus on his run for governor. He faces Democrat Roy Barnes and Libertarian John Monds on the Nov. 2 ballot.
A government watchdog group criticized Deal's role in the project.
"This is more of the same from Congressman Deal," Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Associated Press. "It's always unethical to call a meeting with someone when you have a financial interest. This would be a clear violation of House rules."
Robinson said Riley commonly assisted constituents with various needs involving local governments.
"Chris was a chief of staff based in the district. In accordance with House rules, Chris facilitated meetings with government agencies on the municipal, county and state levels," Robinson said.
The Athens Highway property, which sits behind Gainesville Salvage and Disposal, was originally a Hall County landfill that was closed in 1983. Deal and Cronan purchased the property from Charles Thurmond on Jan. 24, 2002.
Cronan intended to create a construction and demolition landfill on the site. In March 2002, he filed to rezone the 135 acres from agricultural and highway business zoning designations to planned industrial development to build the new landfill.
Old County Dump Road, which divides the property, would be maintained as a private road.
There were a number of challenges for the fledgling project to overcome. With a closed landfill on Allen Creek Road and active landfills nearby, county engineers were concerned about a state law that limits the number of landfills in a given area.
Three landfills cannot be within a two-mile radius, and Cronan's would make a fifth in the area, including two private facilities.
In the March 2002 zoning application, Cronan signed the application for Gainesville Salvage Disposal, which is owned by Deal and Cronan in property records. Deal did not sign the zoning application.
"It is interesting to note how closely clustered these known landfills are," Hall County Natural Resources Coordinator Rick Foote wrote to Senior Planner Jim Nolan in April 2002. "There are many technical issues and regulations that run counter to development of this site."
In May 2002, the Hall County Planning Commission voted to approve the zoning changes. Later that month, the commissioners also approved the rezoning with conditions. In November, the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Center also signed off on the project, saying it was "in the best interest of the state."
In November, William Hodges of Hodges, Harbin, Newberry & Tribble in Macon, was brought on board as the project engineer and still is working with Cronan on the project today. In February 2004, Hodges sent a letter to then-Hall County Planning Director Bill Meyer to "demonstrate that work is being accomplished toward permitting the subject proposed landfill." He estimated a permit would be issued by the EPD by June 2005.
At that time, Hodges only addressed Cronan in business letters, and the letter to Meyer only copied Cronan and engineer Michael Stubbs.
In January of 2005, Deal and Riley talked to EPD officials and Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office to start a permit application for the landfill.
"It was a pleasure meeting with you and Congressman Deal two weeks ago," John Hennelly, senior assistant attorney general wrote to Riley. "In a separate memorandum to this office, Congressman Deal asked whether we would have any recommendation on ‘appropriate legislative language' aimed at enabling the proposed C&D (construction and demolition) landfill to be permitted."
In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Baker, a Democrat, said "it was our determination that, contrary to the congressman's position, his property neither was nor should be exempted from state statute."
In March 2006, Deal met with EPD officials about the permit. Carol Couch, then director of the Environmental Protection Division, addressed a letter to Deal about the requirements. An August 2007 application for an EPD permit includes signatures from both Cronan and Deal.
Hodges then took over correspondence to EPD officials in 2008. By Sept. 30, he talked to the EPD about making the new landfill a "green" project that would excavate the old site and recycle items.
In November 2008, County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver sent a letter to the EPD in support of the project. Oliver said Wednesday the county did not grant any special favors during the zoning process.
"We are pro business. This was a business decision for us," Oliver said. "It's not unusual for me to have conversations with the congressman or Chris Riley. (Deal's) situation was not handled any differently than anybody else's."
In October 2005, Cronan asked the county for a road determination for Old County Dump Road to recognize access from the property. The application, which requests access from Athens Highway, lists Deal and Cronan as applicants, but only Cronan signed the form. The planning commission recommended approval.
In November of that year, Riley contacted Hall County Attorney Bill Blalock through his congressional e-mail account, checking if the road was being accepted into the county system to be maintained by the county.
"Nathan and Ken Cronan, owners of Gainesville Salvage and Disposal, made the application to the county," Riley wrote. "At this point, Nathan has been informed that the petition needs no further action by the county due to the approval of the planning and zoning board."
In March 2006, Chris Bryant of Hall County Public Works and Engineering noted, "We are preparing a road acceptance request for Old County Dump Road, which was submitted by Nathan Deal and Kenneth Cronan."
On the official request, only Cronan is listed.
In February 2007, Deal and Cronan were still looking for road acceptance into the county system. Larry Poole, right-of-way supervisor, e-mailed County Engineer Kevin McInturff that Deal met with several county engineers to discuss the road determination.
"I believe you are aware that an attorney representing Ken Cronan and Nathan Deal has contacted Chris (Bryant) and posed some questions regarding Old County Dump Road," he wrote. "I'm not sure if you were involved with this matter when we were dealing with it early in 2006 but the issue is somewhat complicated and possibly volatile."
The county never accepted the road. To accept the road into its maintenance system, it needed to be brought up to industrial standards, McInturff said.
"If you go out there today, the road is still gravel," McInturff said.
In July 2007, Cronan registered GWAR LLC - Georgia Waste and Recycling - for the landfill project with the secretary of state's office. The LLC lists Deal as an organizer, but his name was included as a clerical error, documents showed. Cronan had Deal's name removed Sept. 15, 2008.
The EPD approved the project in May. Hodges said construction should begin toward the end of the year.
Robinson said the landfill project is a unique concept.
"It's a great project for Hall County. It's going to take an old municipal landfill and clean it up - at private expense, not at taxpayer expense. It's going to recycle goods that have been long buried, and the new construction and demolition waste will also be recycled. It's green, it's clean, it's good for the county," Robinson said.