Watts remains as GOP Chairman after heated vote
By Pat Cooper
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Fayette County GOP Chairman Lane Watts held on to his position by two votes after a heated and contentious meeting of the Fayette County Republican Party’s Executive Board Tuesday night.
Back in March, factions within the Fayette GOP charged that Watts may have committed voter fraud and demanded a hearing to consider him for removal as chairman for “conduct detrimental to the best interests of the Georgia Republican Party.” Five members of the party originally signed off on the Notice of Appeal.
The appeal noted the “egregious behavior and circumstances surrounding the Precinct and County Conventions, warrants a thorough investigation by the county committee to determine if the following facts, along with the evidence that is to be presented to this committee hearing are proven such as to remove the Chairman from his position and other remedies as the rules and Georgia State law allows.”
The big question wrapped around the matter of Watts’ actual address during the voting for delegates at both the local and county precinct levels.
Watts resided at Patricia Lane in Fayetteville with his mother, Marilyn Watts (a member of the Fayette County Board of Elections) when Governor Nathan Deal signed a law redistricting Georgia’s congressional districts in order to add one more district. The redrawing of the vote/elector maps meant that Watts address was now going to be in the 13th District and not the 3rd District.
According to the charge, on September 27, 2011, Watts changed his voter registration on his application to the Georgia Secretary of State which affirmed, under oath, that he resided on Gelding Garth Lane in Peachtree City, 15 days after his district changed to the 13th.
The appeal alleged that the property at that address was under lease by a family completely unassociated with Watts except for a landlord/tennant relationship. Watts was asked to provide copies of ‘all leases’ to prove who had the legal right to live at the property.
On February 18, Watts was elected as a delegate to the county convention by members of the 11th Precinct in the 3rd Congressional District, based on that Peachtree City address.
Fayette County commissioner Steve Brown and Peachtree City councilman George Dienhart were among the five signers of the appeal. Brown had already had his own run-in with Watts over his mother, Board of Elections member Marilyn Watts.
Marilyn Watts is known as a long-time supporter of candidate Newt Gingrich, a stance that, at one point, had Brown asking for her resignation from the Fayette County Board of Elections, since he alleged she had said she would abandon all such political activity if she was reappointed to the board of elections.
At that point, Brown asked for the Republican Party’s executive committee to ask Watts to ‘tender her resignation’ to the Board of Elections immediately. Lane Watts insisted that Brown was mistaken in his reading of the section of the Georgia Election Code. The matter was not brought before the executive board.
“This was a blatant conflict of interest,” Brown said on Wednesday morning. “The matter should have been brought before the board because it had to do with the chairman’s mother. How much more biased can you get? But instead of doing that, he made the decision himself and refused to bring it before the board.”
Research into the records, according to the appellants, showed that Lane Watts had changed his residency to the 11th District. The appeal noted that despite the change of address it was “general knowledge” that he still lived at the Patricia Lane address.
Recording Secretary Debbie Dickinson, though, testified that she had been told that Watts had moved and said she had, in fact, delivered Party papers to his address.
According to the Appeal, on March 8, 2012, just days before the county convention, Marilyn Watts became aware that members of the party’s executive board were checking into her son’s residency issues and “how peculiar it seemed that he had changed his address to the Peachtree City home that he owns. Many believed he had never moved from his home with his mother and was changing his residency merely to stay in the 3rd District.”
The appeal alleged that party members, doing their own rudimentary investigation, went to the Peachtree City address and spoke with neighbors who said that Lane Watts had never lived there.
“Prior to the county convention these inquiries about Lane’s residency were being made openly and the news was discovered by Lane Watts. Which caused him to make another drastic change to his residency.”
During the Tuesday night hearing, two men who had lived at the Peachtree City address were interviewed by local attorney Richard Hobbs, representing the members who had filed the appeal, and they both said they had no knowledge of who Lane Watts was. When Hobbs attempted to point Watts out to the men, Watts refused to be identified by them.
On the day of the March 10 county convention, Lane Watts appeared and announced he had moved back to his Patricia Lane residence.
“When asked when this occurred, he said that the application to change residency had occurred that very day. He said he had moved out of that residence in February.
“This one address changed everything. Lane Watts was elected as a delegate of the 11th Precinct, 3rd District. He then claims to have moved his residency and therefore, was no longer a qualified elector from the 11th Precinct. He admitted he did not live in the 11th at the time of the convention, which means he was no longer a qualified elector/delegate from the 11th, and therefore, unable to serve as a delegate to the convention.”
Brown challenged Watts’ residency credentials at the county convention, which Brown said he brought to the convention delegates and executive board but the meeting was adjourned without ruling against him and they rejected the challenge to the credentials.
“If the above facts are true, then Lane Watts was an elector from the 11th, having been elected at the precinct level, then changed his residency supposedly on the date of the county convention and therefore was ineligible in all matters to either vote, or to be recognized by the chair, unless announced as a guest. However, he participated fully in the meeting.”
More than the address issue, said Hobbs, is that Watts is being charged with ‘actions of ommission and commission which are detrimental to the Party.’
Hobbs, party member Jean Studdard, Denise Ognio and several others all complained about Watts’ lack of communication skills and his refusal to return phone calls and emails in a timely manner.
“He has a history of not communicating,” Hobbs pointed out.
Brown said the he’d given his complaint to Watts in March, after a local Republican breakfast, and was willing to abide the 45-day response rule the Party had. Instead, said Brown, Watts ignored the matter.
“I’ve tried to be affable and easygoing about this,” said Brown. “All I’ve ever asked for was simple proof. I’m willing to go along with what the executive board decides.”
Watts’ representative, Joel Gray, a member of the Marietta Republican Party branch, said he’d never seen anything like this hearing before and asked the membership if they’d be willing to put off this matter off until after the July 31 Primary, but was met with resistance. Gray, though, didn’t present any evidence, either way, of Watts residence and didn’t address the matter of the lack of communication at all.
After nearly three and a half-hours of discussion, the vote was called and the result was 25-16, with one abstention, of the 42 voting members present, that Watts be removed from office. However, since the vote needed to be a two-thirds majority to pass, Watts remains in place.
“We’re not backing down,” said Dienhart after the vote, who pointed out that the county was moving away from its traditional Republican roots as a result of Watts’ leadership of the party. “We need someone who is capable of growing the party. Had this been a matter of a simple majority, he would have lost by a landslide.”
At the end of the evening, Watts was asked why he hadn’t provided any proof of residency and he responded that “I don’t want to feel like I live in a community where a sitting county commissioner can demand me to prove I live here.”
“The reality is that it wasn’t just me that asked,” said Brown. “There were five names on that Appeal- three elected officials and two board members.”
But this isn’t the end of the subject for Watts. A hearing is scheduled before the Fayette County Board of Elections on August 13 to hear the same charges against Watts.
According to Fayette County Board of Elections and Voter Registration Department Head Tom Sawyer, Marilyn Watts has agreed to recuse herself from the board hearing, so there will only be two members, Addison Lester and Darryl Hicks, who will be holding the hearing. Sawyer said that, as far as he knows, Lester and Hicks will hear the evidence and probably take a few days to determine their findings.
At that point, since voter fraud is a felony, the matter could be turned over to the Superior Court for investigation.