AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Special interests load up on lobbyists ahead of legislative session

Casinos, fantasy sports, medical marijuana -- with less than a month before the start of the 2016 General Assembly session, special interests are loading up with lobbyists.

Corporations pushing to end Georgia's ban on casino gambling have hired an army of lobbyists for the coming session. Registrations with the Georgia ethics commission show at least 21 lobbyists, 14 of which were hired by MGM, owner of more than a dozen Las Vegas casino resorts as well as non-Vegas properties like Biloxi's Beau Rivage.

The cadre of casino lobbyists include some of the most politically connected players under the Gold Dome, including:

  • Political strategist Tharon Johnson, highly sought for his connections to the Democratic Party;
  • Blake Ashbee, a former member of Gov. Nathan Deal's staff and a member of the state commission that picks judges;
  • Chuck McMullen, a high-profile Republican lobbyist, with a long list of corporate clients;
  • Brad Alexander, former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle;
  • Former Secretary of State Lewis Massey; and,
  • Robert Highsmith, executive counsel for former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

MGM hired five lobbyists in January, but they and other casino interests have added the rest since late July.

Speaking of gambling, lawmakers meeting in Savannah last month broached the topic of regulating daily fantasy sports companies and were encouraged by casino officials called to testify to regulate those companies as well.

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association last week registered three lobbyists – Dan Baskerville, Jeffrey Hamling and Ben Vinson. All three work for the firm Dentons, which merged with McKenna Long this summer.

Lobbyists also will be working on further liberalizing medical marijuana laws in the state.

Also last week, Halcyon Organics, which bills itself as the first medical cannabis company of the South, hired three lobbyists – Jeremy Betts, Callie Michael and Jesse Weathington of Southern Strategy Group. All three lobbyists have a history working for the Republican administration in Georgia. They will join Ashbee, who registered in September to lobby on behalf of another medical marijuana company.

Of course, there are a host of other issues in play too. Companies, institutions and non-profits have registered more than 160 lobbyists in the past six weeks alone, records show. The rope line outside the House and Senate chambers will be crowded.


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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.