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Rep. Trey Kelley seeks to have indictment thrown out concerning fatal hit-and-run

CEDARTOWN — The attorney for state Rep. Trey Kelley argued in a hearing Friday the indictment against his client for reckless conduct in connection with a fatal 2019 hit and run should be thrown out based on the nature of his involvement and the vagueness of the indictment.

In a hearing in Polk County Superior Court before Senior Judge Steve Schuster of Cobb County, Kelley’s attorney, Lester Tate, stated that Kelley had no duty to stop and render aid following the incident in September 2019.

He is accused of not taking action after Ralph “Ryan” Dover III struck 38-year-old Eric Keais while he was riding his bicycle. Dover called Kelley, who came to the scene, but no police were alerted about the incident until over an hour later, according to prosecutors.

Kelley, a Cedartown resident and lawyer, represents all of Polk and parts of Floyd and Haralson counties. He was indicted by the grand jury in December with misdemeanor reckless conduct.

On top of arguing Kelley was not in the wrong for not rendering aid, Tate claimed the prosecution had grafted the wording in Georgia’s hit-and-run statute into Kelley’s indictment on reckless conduct, making it “constitutionally vague” in terms of what the indictment truly charges Kelley with.

“I think the application of those two rules show two things,” Tate said. “One, that Trey Kelley committed no crime here because it’s not a crime to fail to stop and render aid unless you’re a driver. And two, the prosecution can’t use the reckless conduct statute to create a crime where none exists.”

Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jack Browning told the judge Kelley’s indictment is charged as party to a crime for reckless conduct.

Under Georgia law, a person may be convicted of a crime even if they do not directly commit the crime but aid or advise that person to commit the crime.

“He’s not charged with driving the vehicle. He’s not charged with hitting the person on the bicycle. He is charged with what happens afterwards,” Browning said. “The duty that that gentleman who was driving the vehicle had, and his failure to do so.”

Tate relayed the events of the evening to the court as Schuster said he had no previous knowledge of the case. Browning said that recitation of the events squared with the charges.

“In taking Mr. Tate’s facts, Mr. Dover called (Kelley) to the scene. When he got to the scene, there was a period of time during which the hit and run was never reported,” Browning said. “That’s where Mr. Kelley’s involvement comes into it.”

Both Tallapoosa Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Meng Lim and Judge Mark Murphy previously recused themselves from the case.

The incident

Keais was riding his bike on North Main Street near Frances Drive in Cedartown on the evening of Sept. 11, 2019, when he was allegedly struck by a vehicle driven by Dover.

Claiming he was unsure what he had hit, Dover continued to drive to a nearby business where he then called Kelley.

Dover and Kelley were waiting across the street from the incident location in the Dollar General parking lot in Cedartown after the incident happened, the report stated. Kelley eventually called Cedartown Police Chief Jamie Newsome, who contacted Sgt. Josh Turner to investigate.

According to prosecutors Keais was struck at 8:20 p.m., but the first police on the scene calling for ambulance and fire service didn’t occur until 9:26 p.m.

It was only after Turner arrived that Keais’ body was found in the ditch some 75 to 100 feet away from the bicycle in the roadway. Emergency medical personnel were called, and Keais was taken to the hospital where he died.

A Georgia State Patrol investigation noted “there had not only been a hit and run aspect to this (Motor Vehicle Accident/Fatality) but there was a breach in the dispatch of assistance to our victim, Eric C. Keais.”

Dover was indicted on charges of felony hit and run and reckless conduct. He is currently free on bond pending a trial.

Schuster requested that both Browning and Tate present him with proposed orders that he will consider and present his ruling at a time in the next six weeks.

National track and field youth championships likely to fill Rome to overflowing at the end of June

More than 7,000 competitors have already registered for the USA Track and Field National Youth Outdoor Championships on June 23-26 in Rome.

Charles Muhammad, president of USA Track and Field Georgia, said many athletes are just now coming out of the pandemic and their families are anxious to get out with them as they seek to compete in a national event.

That potentially translates to visitors filling up local restaurants and hotel rooms.

However, Nick Bridges, the track and field coach at Rome High and one of the leaders of the local organizing committee said the actual number of competitors might not reach the 7,000 level because of the way the competition is organized.

The National Youth Outdoor Championships is a team event. Teams that want to participate typically register their entire squad, even if every athlete may not make the trip to Rome.

For example, a team which is loaded with sprinters may not bring some of their distance runners. Some teams may not have kids who are threats to score in the high jump, pole vault or discuss throw.

That said, interest in the meet seems to be growing rapidly as the number of registrations went up by 1,400 just last week.

“And we’re still three weeks away from the meet,” Bridges said.

With the spike in new registrations, Muhammad said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the number registrations hits the 8,000 mark by the end of this weekend.

“If we get half of that, that’s 4,000,” Muhammad said. “From a planning perspective the national office is a little nervous because we know the typical way our clubs and athletes, coaches and parents do things. They wait until the last night and make sure everything is good and they pay on the last night.”

He said if that 4,000 becomes 6,000, he’s got a big challenge.

Lisa Smith, executive director of the Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism said the event will be huge for Rome and the entire region.

“We’re so pleased with all of the work Nick (Bridges) has done to help showcase that Barron Stadium is worthy of hosting a national event,” Smith said. “This will really add to Rome’s sports resume.”

The organizers hope to keep the event in Rome over the next three or four years. Bids for the event are submitted annually in the fall.

This event used to serve as the bi-annual qualifier for the Youth World Team. A few years back that stopped, but the event continues to take place as the national championship on a team point basis.

The actual Olympic trials for the games in Tokyo later this year will be held the same weekend in Eugene, Oregon.

In fact, several of the top hammer and discus throwers in the Southeast, (including one from the Netherlands) were in Rome on Friday practicing for a sanctioned event Sunday to try to get some of the athletes qualifying throws to compete in the Olympic trials.

Denzel Comenentia from The Netherlands is just a meter away from qualifying to make the Dutch Olympic team.

He was an NCAA champion at the University of Georgia in both the hammer throw and shot put in 2018 but is focused solely on the hammer throw for the Olympics.

Sydney Young, a student at Model Elementary School

North Georgia inland port already a target for expansion

The Appalachian Regional Port north of Chatsworth has been open for a little less than three years and is already a target for expansion by the Georgia Ports Authority.

The Director of Economic and Industrial Development at Georgia Ports Authority, Stacy Watson, said the good news is that the state has enough property around the inland port in Murray County to easily accommodate growth.

Watson, who spoke to the Economic Development Committee of the Rome Floyd Chamber Friday, explained that growth of containerized shipments through the ports in Savannah and Brunswick has fueled the need for additional rail-served inland ports.

The state is making plans for another inland port in Hall County and exploring potential locations in west Georgia for a facility. The Kia plant in West Point will likely be the anchor user.

The Appalachian Regional Port has a direct rail connection to the port in Savannah and is currently served with shipments six days a week.

“We’re very close to capacity (at the Appalachian port),” Watson said. The facility was built to handle about 30,000 containers on an annual basis and the authority is looking to expand that by another 5,000 to 10,000 containers.

“This is with one shift, we can add a second shift, we can expand our tracks,” Watson said.

The Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga is one of the largest customers for the Murray County facility.

The rail served inland port was designed in part to take some truck traffic off the highways. A current shortage of long-haul truck drivers has also been a factor in the increased use of the rail service, according to Watson.

“We’re doing our part to control our destiny and move more freight via rail,” Watson said. “We want to give our customers more options to move freight via rail versus 100% truck.”

Nonetheless, Watson told the Rome business group that 80% of the container traffic coming out of the port at Savannah is truck traffic.

Floyd County container trade through the port of Savannah amounted to more than 5,700 TEUs — 20-foot equivalent units — during Georgia’s fiscal year 2020 which ended June 30 of last year.

Pirelli Tire North American was the leader with more than 3,900 TEU’s. OTR Wheel Engineering was second with 261, AST Trading was number three with 233. Advanced Streel Technology and Branson Machinery rounded out the top five with 223 and 189 TEUs respectively.

Watson did not specify how much of the local shipments went by truck or train.

The GPA executive said the seemingly endless effort to deepen the harbor on the Savannah River is nearing completion.

The river channel is being deepened from 42-feet to 47-feet. That project is expected to be finished during the first quarter of 2022.

The deepening project is more important for export shipments than import commodities.

“An import box is about three times lighter than an export box,” Watson said. Much of Georgia’s exports are very dense freight, kaolin, frozen poultry, forestry products need plenty of water to get out to the ocean.

The next big issue on the coast may involve the Talmadge Bridge over the river.

At high tide, some of the new container ships will require a 230-feet clearance as opposed to the 185-feet that is generally available right now. The Georgia Ports Authority is looking at options which primarily involve either raising the existing bridge or building a completely new bridge.

New ‘leadership committees’ promise to change political landscape in Georgia

ATLANTA — Candidates for state offices next year will have a lot more cash at their disposal thanks to a law that promises to fundamentally alter the nature of campaigning in Georgia.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, authorizes the creation of “leadership committees” that can raise and spend unlimited contributions on behalf of top statewide and legislative candidates. Recipients also will be able to accept committee donations at any time of the year, including while the General Assembly is in session.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the measure this year virtually along party lines, with Democrats warning that allowing unlimited campaign contributions will increase the influence of special interests in Georgia politics at a time when public trust in government already is low.

“These leadership committees take away all the restrictions that have been put in place over the years to control big money,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta.

Senate Bill 221 will create eight leadership committees to be chaired by Georgia’s governor, lieutenant governor, the general-election nominees opposing those two statewide incumbents and the heads of the majority and minority caucuses of the state House of Representatives and Senate.

There will be no cap on contributions to the committees, which for individual candidates range from $14,000 to $22,200 for statewide posts and $5,600 to $8,600 for legislative seats, depending on whether a candidate is forced into primary and/or general-election runoffs.

However, donations to the new committees will be subject to the same disclosure requirements that apply to statewide and legislative campaigns under current law, said Edward Lindsey, a partner in the Atlanta office of international law firm Dentons LLP and a former House majority whip.

“There’s not any dark money here,” he said.

The leadership committees also will not be subject to the law prohibiting statewide officeholders and legislators from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions during General Assembly sessions.

Lindsey said the change will help officeholders better compete against primary challengers under the accelerated schedule adopted in recent years, which shifted party primaries from July to May. Legislative sessions typically don’t end until late March or early April.

“Officeholders were at a distinct disadvantage … when they were in a position of having to run in primaries,” Lindsey said.

But Jordan said it’s primary challengers — not incumbent officeholders — who will be put at a disadvantage by the new law.

While Senate Bill 221 lets Georgia’s two top statewide incumbents and their general-election opponents form leadership committees, anyone who wants to mount a primary challenge against one of those incumbents remains subject to the current law’s cap on donations and the time limit on contributions.

“If you’re a Republican challenging (Gov. Brian) Kemp in a primary, he can raise money during the (legislative) session,” Jordan said.

Going further, Jordan suggested incumbent protection may have been what Republican leaders had in mind in crafting the bill.

“Since the GOP is very fractured, there’s more likelihood of a primary challenge,” she said. “That’s a real problem for them. This is how they think they can solve it.”

Lindsey disagreed saying leadership committees are not obligated to support incumbents in a primary.

“There’s nothing to keep leadership committees from backing any candidate,” he said.

Beyond how the new law will affect primary campaigns, opponents are raising the broader issue of what unlimited contributions will mean to the role of money in politics.

“It would allow big corporations and out-of-state big money donors to buy our elections,” Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill back in March.

“In last year’s elections, private donors spent $24 million on Georgia House races and $12.5 million on Georgia Senate races — and that was with existing donation limits. This bill would allow unlimited donations, so who knows how much money special interests will be willing to ‘invest’ in our elections.”

Jordan said unlimited contributions will put pressure on lobbyists under the Gold Dome to pony up larger donations.

“This is the worst thing ever for them because it increases how much they have to pay up to get in the game,” she said.

Lindsey said the leadership-committee approach to political giving reflects the way the process actually works.

“Politics is a team sport,” he said. “In order to get things done, it takes a team effort. This legislation promotes that philosophy.”