News - Say hello to Bobby Bad-Ass

The Barnes version of spin control

The Atlanta Business Chronicle is ripping the lid off a super-secret state tax break program, and Gov. Roy Barnes is not pleased. Not one little bit.

In an ongoing series, Chronicle reporter Meredith Jordan has unearthed quite a bit on the hush-hush program, which has doled out almost $100 million in tax breaks to six undisclosed companies in three years. Four appointees, operating in secret with zero elective oversight, decide who gets the special deals.

Frustrated by official stonewalling and unable to get the whole story, the Chronicle filed suit last month under the Open Records Act to force the state to cough up 1) the names of the "Tax Break Six" and 2) key information that would let taxpayers gauge the program's institutional integrity and overall effectiveness.

The basic idea behind the state's stealthy "allocation and apportionment program" — encouraging job creation with special tax breaks for companies locating or expanding facilities in Georgia — is neither new nor inherently wrong-headed. In recent years, however, the concept has been pushed to the limit and beyond as corporate cadgers have deftly pitted neighboring states against each other in bidding wars for jobs. Thus far, Georgia has been smart enough to sit out some of the nastier lose-lose battles involving Alabama and South Carolina.

On the question of openness, the Chronicle is spot on. Georgia taxpayers fund the secret tax breaks; they deserve to know where their money is going and what it's buying. Taxpayers also should be able to smell-test the program, examining any connections that might exist between beneficiaries and state leaders.

While no evidence of official wrongdoing has emerged so far, the state would do well to open up the process to public scrutiny.

Barnes disagrees. But instead of accepting the fact that he and the Chronicle have different views and letting the lawyers sort it out in court, the governor dispatched his one-man personal goon squad to read the paper the riot act.

In a late-October phone call, Barnes' chief of staff, Bobby Kahn, tried to browbeat a formal correction out of Chronicle Editor David Allison on a minor point that didn't need correcting.

Politics is not a pretty business, as Barnes proved again with his heavy-handed, anti-democratic approach to reapportionment. Still, two-bit mob hoods are subtler than Kahn, who punctuated his telephone tirade with R-rated expletives and schoolyard-style insults.

Ostensibly, Kahn wanted Allison to print an unneeded correction. Based on limited information, the Chronicle had come up with an average salary figure for jobs created by the secret tax breaks that seemed far too high. The paper admitted as much at the time, and when Barnes' people produced clarifying information they duly reported a more accurate figure in a subsequent story.

That wasn't nearly enough for Kahn, who demanded a formal correction on the original piece. When Allison explained that a retraction wasn't necessary and wouldn't be made, Kahn got nasty, telling the editor his paper was "pretty fucking sloppy."

Later, Kahn resorted to puerile put-downs, questioning the veteran newspaperman's maturity. "This sounds like a conversation I have with my kids," Kahn railed. "That's the level you boys are on."

When Allison said the paper set high standards, Kahn couldn't resist. "Bullshit," he declared.

Barnes' foul-mouthed enforcer didn't get his correction. And if Kahn's greater, unspoken goal was to intimidate the Chronicle into silence or more favorable coverage, he failed there too. Spectacularly. Far from being cowed, Allison fired back, detailing Kahn's rhetorical rough-up in print.

The question is why would the governor's head head-knocker pitch such a fit over what amounts to a footnote to a story about a program begun under Zell Miller that has not yet caught the public's attention?

Is insulting newspaper editors with crude phone calls just standard operating procedure for these clowns, or do Barnes and Kahn have something to hide? Still more tantalizingly, could King Roy and Lord Bobby be getting nervous about next year's governor's race?

Whatever the case, this much is abundantly clear: Bobby Kahn is one extremely small and thin-skinned individual, and Roy Barnes, for whatever reason, likes him that way.

Luke Boggs would like a secret tax break, but he doesn't expect to get one.??

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