Editor’s note: This article was corrected March 15. Commissioner Jim Goodman responded to the Grand Jury subpoena with a letter indicating he was not on the board when the documents were generated and that spaceport information had been withheld from him.

The Camden County government is under scrutiny from the Georgia Attorney General and a Grand Jury over its failure to release public records about its controversial plans for the proposed Spaceport Camden.

At every Camden County Commission meeting this year the panel has voted down a motion by Commissioner Jim Goodman, who ran on an anti-spaceport platform and was elected in November, to release the records. Now Goodman is getting backup in the form of subpoenas for those records from a Grand Jury as well as a letter from the office of Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr poking holes in the county’s arguments for keeping the records under wraps.

Commissioner Jim Goodman

The county has spent more than $12 million in its quest to build the spaceport and attract the commercial space industry to the area. The idea was controversial from the start with proposed flight paths of small commercial rockets over residences on nearby Cumberland and Little Cumberland island. The Federal Aviation Administration granted Camden a launch operator’s license in late 2021 contingent on the county gaining control of the proposed spaceport property, owned by Union Carbide Corporation. Citizens blocked the county’s purchase with a referendum and then defeated the county in its attempt to invalidate the referendum at the Georgia Supreme Court.

After that decision, Camden County v. Sweatt, et al., was released Feb. 7, spaceport opponents expected a full disclosure of documents. But the county continued to claim exemptions from the Open Records Act.

Attorney General steps in

Kevin Lang, an attorney and spaceport opponent whose family owns property on Little Cumberland, was among the first to test how open the county would be after the Supreme Court decision. On Feb. 9, he requested a raft of spaceport documents from Camden. The county rejected his request. Lang brought the matter to the attention of the Office of the Attorney General, which operates an Open Records mediation program.

In a letter dated March 3, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo criticized the county’s handling of Lang’s request.

” … (I)t appears from your letter that the county intends to withhold all of the requested records in their entirety, rather than redacting only the portions of the records that are covered by the exceptions you cited,” Colangelo wrote to David M. Burkoff, a Savannah-based attorney hired by Camden.

And because there was no longer a real estate deal on the table, that exemption to the Open Records Act was off the table, too, Colangelo pointed out.

“In light of the Sweatt decision, it appears that one could reasonably conclude that the proposed acquisition of real property has been ‘terminated’ within the meaning of (the Georgia Open Records Act),” she wrote.

She also rejected as irrelevant an ongoing lawsuit over the county’s previous refusal to release documents to the environmental group One Hundred Miles.

“I am not aware of any legal reason that the existence of that lawsuit would prevent the county from providing records to Mr. Lang.”

Lang himself had previously responded to the county’s refusal, making arguments similar to those of the Attorney General.

In his response dated March 13, Burkoff said Camden was dropping its assertion of the real estate exemption, but other communications Lang requested “have been identified as exempt under other GORA exemptions.”

He did not identify which exemptions he was asserting.

Grand jury subpoenas

The Grand Jury subpoenas came in the middle of the Attorney General’s correspondence with Camden. On March 9, a Grand Jury empaneled by the Superior Court of Camden County and conducting an “investigation of matters pertaining to Spaceport Camden” served subpoenas to Camden County Attorney John Myers, Camden County Administrator Shawn Boatright and the five-member Camden County Commission.

Each subpoena requests the same documents:

  1. All vendor bids from Spaceport-related vendors
  2. All contracts and contract revisions from Spaceport-related venders
  3. All invoices received from Spaceport-related vendors
  4. All payments to Spaceport-related vendors
  5. All deliverables received according to the contracts between Camden County and Spaceport-related vendors
  6. All vendor activity reports given to the Camden County Spaceport Administration
  7. All communications (emails, texts, etc.) between Spaceport Administration and Spaceport-related vendors

Goodman responded individually as a commissioner on Monday, which was the deadline. In a phone interview with The Current he said that after the March 7 commission meeting he received from the county a stack of spaceport documents weighing over 8 pounds, many redacted.

“They cannot possibly be all-inclusive, but that’s what they handed me,” he said. Goodman’s response to the Grand Jury was a letter indicating he was not on the board when the documents were generated and that the information had been withheld from him.

The Grand Jury is making the same request Goodman has made repeatedly since his election to the board, he said.

“Every single meeting, I have asked that all spaceport back records be released. And every single meeting they’ve song and danced and hemmed and hawed, and avoided doing that,” Goodman said.

The Grand Jury’s request won’t cause the information to become public immediately.

“They are asking for information related to the spaceport. What they do with that information is going to be highly secretive until they turn a response that would result in further legal action, and then it becomes a true bill and public information,” Goodman said. “Now, whether this is going to result in that is entirely up to the decision of the grand jury.”

Commission Chair Ben Casey

Commission Chairman Ben Casey issued a statement via email indicating he will seek a Special Grand Jury:

“As we all know the current Grand Jury has chosen to investigate items related to Spaceport Camden. This is not the first time that a Grand Jury has looked into Spaceport Camden as part of the Grand Jury’s investigative powers. However, given that the term of the current Grand Jury will end in just a short time, I feel that the citizens of Camden would be better served if there was a Special Grand Jury seated to just look into Spaceport Camden. This is something that I have been giving consideration to since taking office as chairman of the Board of Commissioners. With that said at this time I am asking DA (Keith) Higgins and the Clerk of Superior Court of Camden County to empanel a Special Grand Jury as soon as time permits to investigate Spaceport Camden.”

Kevin Lang agrees that the work might be best suited to a Special Grand Jury, even though a Special Grant Jury can only recommend indictments rather than issue them, as a regular Grand Jury can.

“If you look at the subject matter, the scale of it, the scope of the investigation, I think a Special Grand Jury is probably a more appropriate way to approach the investigation,” he said in a phone interview with The Current. “I just don’t think the standing Grand Jury is going to have time to do their work and devote the time that’s going to be necessary to properly investigate the spaceport project just because the records are so voluminous.”

Spaceport critics have for years asserted that county officials and project consultants kept spending taxpayer money on the spaceport long after they knew the project was not viable. Lang hopes a Special Grand Jury could pin down those claims.

“I think the most important thing is going to be to determine who knew what and when,” he said.

Steve Weinkle

But Steve Weinkle, a Camden resident who has long opposed Spaceport Camden as a waste of taxpayer money, is wary of Casey’s call for a Special Grand Jury.

“We believe that Mr. Casey’s request is nothing more than a continuation of the ruse to continue to hide these records,” Weinkle said.

Weinkle said the records have been hidden since 2013 and they belong to the public.

“None of them we’re asking for pertain to anything outside the purchase of the Union Carbide property and the spaceport activity expenses related to the purchase of the Union Carbide property. Ben Casey’s request for a Special Grand Jury will effectively tie those records up at least through November unless the special Grand Jury issues immediate indictments.”

The term of the current Grand Jury began Nov. 7 and ends by April 4 when a new Grand Jury is empaneled, according to Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Robert German Jr.

But its work is not wasted if it doesn’t finish by April. The 2019 Grand Jury that previously began investigating Spaceport Camden met with the County Attorney John Myers and then-Administrator Steve Howard. In its presentment, the filing of its findings, it urged better communication between the county and its citizens and urged the next Grand Jury to continue its work.

“The Grand Jury further recommends that the November 2019 Grand Jury continue to review the progress of Spaceport under its civil authority. The current committee members of this Grand Jury will make themselves available to the new Grand
Jury for this purpose,” they wrote.

The Grand Jury process was interrupted by the Covid pandemic. It’s unclear how or if the next Grand Jury followed this recommendation.

County Attorney John Myers and County Manager Shawn Boatright did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Commissioners Martin Turner and Trevor Readdick. Commissioner Lannie Brant declined to comment, as did One Hundred Miles Executive Director Megan Desrosiers.

Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...