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Former Local Official Stands To Make Millions From Rivian Plant On Family's Land

The first of Rivian's R1T electric SUVs rolls off the company's assembly line in Normal, Illinois, last year.

The involvement of a former economic development official in the planned Rivian development in Social Circle is raising the specter of a conflict of interest in the $5B project.

Alan Verner, who previously headed up the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties, and four of his siblings own 675 acres that are part of the planned megasite being set aside for Rivian's $5B electric vehicle plant, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Verner was one of the initial board members of the four-county economic development agency before becoming its chairman in 2006, where he remained until August. By then, the organization was well into talks with Rivian, the AJC reported.

In 2018, JDA and the state of Georgia began to market the East Atlanta megasite along I-20, on land abutting Verner family properties, in an effort to attract big industrial prospects to the four-county region. 

As part of the deal, the JDA had the option to purchase the Verner properties, which would then be leased to Rivian, for an undisclosed amount, according to the AJC. Once the Rivian deal closes, Verner and his siblings could make around $20M in the land sale, the AJC reported.

Some raised concern that Verner's dual role as head of the JDA and a prominent landowner who would benefit from Rivian's plans could be construed as a conflict of interest, even though state laws don't prohibit economic development authorities from participating in business deals.

“I have a huge problem that someone served in this position and they’re essentially profiting from it,” William Perry, founder of nonprofit Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, told the AJC.

But state and local officials all say the deal, negotiated largely in secret, was on the up and up, with Verner abstaining from a number of votes associated with Rivian and leaving the boardroom when the carmaker's deal and the land purchase were part of the discussion, Wilson DuBose, an attorney for Verner, told the AJC. Both Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson and a spokesperson for Rivian said Verner neither interacted with Rivian nor could have influenced the deal.

“It honestly offends me to hear people say that Verner had something to do with personally assisting himself to profit from this venture,” Shane Short, director of the Development Authority of Walton County, told the AJC.

A collection of area residents has been protesting the deal, raising concerns about Rivian's environmental impact and strain on local infrastructure. But Georgia took ownership of the site in February, allowing it to avoid having to go through local rezoning approvals.

While Rivian has been touted as the biggest economic development deal in Georgia's history, the state government has yet to reveal what specific incentives it is handing over to the automaker, which is struggling to fulfill orders due to supply chain issues, the New York Times reported. The plant is set to break ground this summer.