Thursday October 8th, 2015 7:40PM

Gov. Deal's campaign chairman tied to lab site

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) Gov. Nathan Deal's campaign chairman is a partner in a development near Deal's hometown where a state commission headed by Deal decided to buy property.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that the decision by the State Properties Commission to place the $13.6 million State Poultry Laboratory at the planned Gateway Industrial Centre near Gainesville, Deal's hometown, could provide the linchpin tenant for the development to succeed.

Deal chairs the properties commission, and his campaign chairman, Philip Wilheit, is a partner in the 518-acre industrial park land. In addition to the state's buying 10 acres of the site for $690,000, Hall County officials have agreed to front about $10 million in local taxpayer funds to improve the property. Money from the poultry lab sale will be spent on infrastructure for the project.

Wilheit and Deal told the newspaper that they did nothing wrong and that the state got a good location for its lab at a good price.

Minutes from the State Properties Commission meeting on Aug. 24 show Deal presided over the meeting as chairman but did not vote on approving the land purchase.

Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the site was selected after an extensive, transparent process and the land matched the criteria.

To make the deal work, the Hall County Commission agreed on Aug. 23 to put up about $10 million to build roads, sewers and other infrastructure on the land. Wilheit and his partners transferred the property to the local development authority the same day. The next day, the State Properties Commission voted to buy 10 acres for $690,000 to become the first buyer in the industrial park.

The owners would get their money back as the lots in the industrial center are sold.

Wilheit, who is chairman of the development authority, told the newspaper that he did not take part in the discussions of selling the property to the state.

``I even told the governor I was backing away until they decide what they want,'' he said.

Wilheit said he took the hands-off approach to avoid any questions about conflicts of interest. ``I will stand behind what I did and not bow my head one bit,'' he said.

Wilheit, his families and businesses have contributed about $60,000 to Deal's gubernatorial campaigns.

A new state poultry lab has been planned since before Deal became governor. State lawmakers approved a $13.6 million bond in 2009 to build a new lab in Hall County. The current lab in Oakwood, near Gainesville, was built in 1962 and is partially condemned. Officials said the current lab site was not suitable for the new lab, but they wanted to keep the lab near Gainesville, which bills itself as the ``Poultry Capital of the World.''

Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver said it made sense for the county to front money for the development.

``Sometimes that's the responsibility of government, to create these opportunities for the people of this county,'' he said.
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