‘Dumbfounded.’ Some Dems infuriated by Barnes hire in voter case

Former Gov. Roy Barnes in a 2015 file photo. Tami Chappell / Special to the AJC

The fact that the Attorney General’s office isn’t representing Secretary of State Brian Kemp in his ongoing legal battle with a national transparency organization isn’t a shock. What comes as a surprise is the attorney tapped to represent the office: Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who has often sparred with Kemp.

The Attorney General’s Office often taps outside counsel to represent state agencies when there’s a conflict of interest, such as a situation where the Law Department would have to represent both the Secretary of State’s Office and Kennesaw State University in the same legal matter. And Kemp’s launch of an investigation into KSU’s handling of data deleted from a server central to the litigation likely factored into the AG office’s decision that it couldn’t represent both parties.

Kemp’s campaign, in a blustery press release late Wednesday, suggested that’s what happened: “The Attorney General’s office has a conflict of interest and cannot represent the elections board or the Secretary of State’s office. No one quit or thought the case was too difficult.”

But Barnes’ decision to represent Kemp is more remarkable. Since returning to his law firm after his 2002 defeat, the former governor has filed legal challenges targeting the voter ID program that Kemp and other Republicans cherish. And he has endorsed Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans, who is competing against Kemp and a half-dozen other contenders for governor next year.

Evans’ campaign declined to comment on his appointment, which we’re told was approved by the state Department of Administrative Services. Barnes did not return messages seeking comment. Kemp welcomed Barnes’ involvement in the case, calling the Democrat a “damn good lawyer.”

Some Democrats, however, saw a major problem with the Barnes’ hire, including several who support former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is running against Evans.

State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a longtime deputy of Abrams, said she was “dumbfounded that Roy Barnes would defend the secretary of state in such a case.”

Abrams’ campaign, meanwhile, stuck to its long-running criticism of Kemp. Abrams spokeswoman Priyanka Mantha said the decision to hire Barnes confirms that Kemp’s “incompetence is indefensible.”

“Georgians must stand united against him and the use of our taxpayer resources to defend his misdeeds,” said Mantha.

Kemp called the lawsuit, which seeks to force the state to overhaul its election system, a “ridiculous” complaint.

“It’s typical from liberal groups suing over election results they don’t like,” he said in an interview. “I’m confident that our voting system is secure, as we’ve seen in the last two elections when we’ve had record turnout.”