Attorney General Sam Olens has taken on some of the state’s toughest problems – sex trafficking, prescription drug abuse and Medicaid fraud – and championed open government. And he’s not done yet.
He’s a lot more, but Sam Olens is basically a good guy. Georgia’s Republican attorney general, in the middle of his second term, is a plays-well-with-others, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work consensus-builder, a lawyer’s lawyer who is quick to share credit and gives every sign of loving what he does.
“What greater honor can there be for an attorney than to represent the state?” Olens asks.
He and his staff have worked with the governor – no open hostilities between the two offices as in some other states – and the General Assembly to toughen penalties for sex traffickers and strengthen sunshine laws; they are immersed in a program to alert citizens – young ones in particular – to the dangers of prescription drug abuse. They are also recovering funds paid for fraudulent Medicaid claims and gearing up to attack identity theft and shore up cyber security.
For his work leading Georgia’s Department of Law and his focus on matters that affect the well-being of Georgia citizens, Attorney General Sam Olens is Georgia Trend’s 2016 Georgian of the Year.
Prior to his first statewide race in 2010, there was speculation that Olens, a former chairman of the Cobb County Commission and the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), might run for governor in what was a pretty crowded field. Instead, he opted for attorney general.
“I was at the point as Cobb County Commission chairman where I loved the job and loved the people,” Olens says, “but I frankly missed not being more involved with the law.” It was also, he says, a rare opportunity, the first time in nearly 50 years there was an open seat for attorney general – no strong incumbent – something that had not happened since the time of Arthur Bolton, who served from 1965 until 1981 when he retired. (Mike Bowers, appointed by Gov. George Busbee to replace Bolton, resigned in 1997 to run for governor; Gov. Zell Miller then appointed Thurbert Baker, who resigned in January 2011 to make his own unsuccessful gubernatorial run.)
“When Thurbert announced he was resigning and was going to run [for governor], it created an opportunity that seldom happens.”
To hear Olens tell it, it was pretty much by accident that he wound up in public life. He was born in Florida, grew up in New Jersey, went to college in Washington, D.C., at American University, and graduated from Emory Law School.
“When we moved into our house,” he recalls, “my wife directed that I attend the annual homeowners [East Cobb Civic Association] meeting. I left as a member of the board. If you’re a CPA or banker or small business owner or lawyer, they call you ‘board member.’”
So began his interest in civic affairs, which led him to a seat on the Cobb Commission and ultimately to its chairmanship. He became involved in the Atlanta Regional Commission, the planning and intergovernmental coordinating agency for the 10-county metro area, and served as chairman from 2004 through 2009.
The experiences provided on-the-job training for working with divergent political interests and personalities toward a common goal.
At the ARC, Olens says, “I spent a lot of time working with [Democrat] Shirley Franklin, former mayor of the city of Atlanta, and [Republican] Karen Handel, former chairman of the Fulton County Commission. We worked through a new proposal for a transit plan for the region. I was told I was crazy to attempt that in the first place.”
The AG’s Office
Olens credits much of his success as attorney general to working effectively with other elected officials: “I’ve had the luxury of working with a governor who is also an attorney and who frankly is eager to mitigate any differences and constructively have our staffs work together.”
It’s inevitable, he says, that there will be some points of friction – that’s the nature of legal issues that come up in the course of governing.
“As I look around the country, I see some examples of the governor and the attorney general in open warfare,” he says, a situation that does no favors for the citizens. “I frankly haven’t had that.”
His predecessor Baker, a Democrat, and Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, famously clashed on the federal Affordable Care Act, which Perdue wanted to challenge in court; Baker declined.
The collaborative approach is effective with the General Assembly, too. Olens calls his relationship with the leadership very good. “I work on the other side of the aisle,” he says, meeting regularly with House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. “She’s been a friend for a long time. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open.”
He’s especially pleased when legislators call on his office for help with the language in certain bills. “I’m responsible for defending the law – so it puts us in a better position.
“It always was my intention to walk across the crosswalk to work with the lawmakers,” he says, a reference to the short street, Capitol Square South, that separates him from the Gold Dome.
One of the toughest issues Olens took on early in his first term was sex trafficking, strengthening penalties for crimes involving labor or sexual servitude, including changing the minimum punishment from one year in prison to 10, and undertaking an education program to help law enforcement and prosecutors.
“There were several motivating factors,” Olens says. “I was never abused, thankfully, but I did lose my mom at age 5 and my dad at age 12.” The uncle with whom he had gone to live died when Olens was 14. “I did have an upbringing where you needed to get maturity quicker than the average boy.”
Right after he was elected he heard a presentation from Linda Smith, a former congresswoman from Washington state, and her organization, Shared Hope International, about state laws concerning sex trafficking.
“I came back and told the office I wanted it to be a priority and immediately went to work with [former Rep.] Edward Lindsey and Renee Unterman – some of the few legislators at that time interested in the issue. They did a great job.” HB 200 passed in 2011; 2015’s SB 8 provided additional resources for children who are victimized.
“Sam has been a godsend to the movement of protecting children,” says Sen. Unterman, a long-time child advocate who says it was often a struggle to convince people that child sex trafficking was actually occurring in Georgia. “Sam was integral. He verified and gave validity [to the fight]. He said, ‘Oh, yes, it is happening.’”
And equally important, she says, “You have to prosecute. You have to let criminals know you’re a very restrictive state: Don’t come to the state of Georgia and do your dirty business. Sam is sending that message.”
Last fall Olens hired Camila Wright from Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard’s office, where she handled sex trafficking cases, something she continues to do in a statewide role. Additionally, Olens says, “She and I both go around the state providing training for law enforcement and communities.
“We know that as soon as we train law enforcement, as soon as we train prosecutors and judges, the system works better. We know as soon as the police department and sheriff’s department know what they’re looking at, they are able to [make] the right charge of trafficking.
“I’m a believer in the Starfish Theory,” Olens says. “You may not save all these children that are being sold for sex, but every child you save is a great day. It takes a lot of restorative efforts to help bring their life back. We work with Georgia Cares, Street Grace, Youth Spark, Wellspring Living and Rotary Clubs – we all need to be working together.”
Olens is directing his personal energies and the clout of his office toward a campaign, now in its second year, to alert the public, especially young people, to the dangers of prescription drugs.
“Students are told all the time about marijuana, coke and methamphetamines,” he says, “but the five major drugs that account for overdose that the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] sees abused are Oxycontin, Xanax, Methadone, Hydrocodone and methamphetamines. The top four we are not talking about.
“So whether it’s the child that goes to a psychologist due to a difficult divorce in the family or the football star who has a knee injury and gets hooked on pain pills, or even the child told by a friend, ‘Those pills in the medicine cabinet will give you one heck of a high and they’re free,’ it’s a serious problem. We lose about 700 lives a year to prescription drug overdose.”
He and members of his staff speak regularly at schools, often accompanied by recovering addicts, to let students know how easy it is to become addicted and how damaging an addiction can be.
Another part of this particular fight involves going after pill mills, the shady pain clinics that freely dispense drugs. “How is it that if you call your doctor, it takes two or three days to get in and get an antibiotic,” Olens says, “and you can walk into a pain clinic and get oxycodone the same day?”
Once Florida passed a law regulating the clinics, many of the pill pushers moved to Georgia. But legislation advocated by Olens, based on the Florida law, now requires the clinics to be licensed and regulated by the state board of medical examiners. He makes a point of adding that most medical professionals in the state prescribe responsibly, but says it’s important to go after the bad actors.
Olens is proud of another effort aimed at helping young people: the Legal Food Frenzy program he created, at the urging of Atlanta Community Food Bank founder Bill Bolling. The program is a statewide food-drive competition to get lawyers, especially newly minted ones, involved in helping state food banks bridge the summertime gap, when many children who receive free or reduced-cost school lunches during the school year may be in need.
Even before he was elected, Olens was convinced that Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, ensuring access to public meetings and public records, needed an overhaul. He was called “Don Quixote,” by one newspaper publisher, who doubted he could get a bill through the legislature.
It took two tries, in 2011 and in 2012, but he was successful – with considerable help from Rep. Jay Powell. The bill clarified and specified penalties for local governments and officials who denied access. “It’s far from perfect,” he says of the bill, “but it’s a big improvement.”
He has resisted attempts to revise the legislation: “Not that there aren’t some changes that would be helpful, but there might be some changes that are not helpful.”
Many people associate Sunshine Law concerns with journalists, but most of the complaints – several hundred a year – come from individual citizens. The best resolution, Olens believes, is to settle a complaint before it goes to litigation.
Suing The EPA
Georgia has joined several other states to challenge some key regulatory rulings of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relating to clean water and air.
“The commonality is constitutional,” Olens says, obviously relishing a chance to talk about the law. “Historically, the EPA has been given jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. The suits are based on the fact that we perceive the regulations exceed that authority.
“In the case of the Waters of the United States Rule, the statute as well as two U.S. Supreme Court cases have ruled that the EPA controls navigable waters. We contend the new rule goes much, much further and seeks to regulate waters that heretofore have been handled by state or local government. Our argument is that if you want to change the law, that needs to be done by statute and not by regulation.
“With regard to the Clean Power Plan, it’s clear that the EPA has the right to set limits on pollutants, but there’s a term called cooperative federalism. The federal government gets to set limits, but the state regulatory agency gets to work with the utilities in that state as to how to reach that standard. In the case of the Clean Power Plan, the EPA is not only setting the limit but telling states how they need to get there.
“Our complaint is not tightening standards, our complaint is not having clean air or clean water – we all want clean air and water. The issue is what is the role of the state government as compared to the federal government. We’re simply saying if you want to change the acts, it needs to be done by Congress rather than by regulatory agencies.”
He thinks the cases will make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court for final resolution in the next two or three years.
Last July, the Office of Consumer Protection moved from the governor’s office to the attorney general’s and became the Consumer Protection Unit. One of its first efforts, the Military Consumer Protection Initiative, seeks to safeguard the military from predatory payday lenders, some of whom charge illegal and exorbitant fees.
“If you go outside Fort Benning,” Olens says, “you will see a litany of payday lenders. It’s fine for businesses [that] comply with Georgia law, but we are going after those that don’t.”
The legal interest limit for payday loans is 10 percent, but the AG’s office is currently prosecuting a case against an out-of-state lender that has charged as much as 340 percent.
“We feel it’s a big priority to protect the military and members of their families.”
The new unit will be making its next big push against identity theft, very likely this year. “Another area we want to move into is data breaches, cyber security,” Olens says. “It’s a huge problem. You can’t go a month without a major breach. Simply being given a new credit card doesn’t fully solve the problem. I have a lot of sympathy for these businesses that are targeted, as well as the consumers. When you have bad guys in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, overtly trying to attack our financial industry as well as our federal and state government, we as a country need to do far more to stop those breaches and far more to protect our consumers.”
The area of Medicaid fraud, once handled by three different agencies, has been the sole responsibility of the attorney general’s office since 2011. “That unit is now a national star,” Olens says, “recovering hundreds of millions of dollars back for the [Department of Community Health] and some for [the Department of] Public Health. I’m proud of our lawyers on both the civil side – which didn’t exist before – and the criminal side.”
The Big Question
So, what’s next for Olens, a man who clearly enjoys his job but might be expected to set his sights a bit higher? Will he be content to seek a third term as AG?
He says, without hesitation, that he doesn’t know what will happen in 2018. “I do not have a plan. I may run for re-election. I may run for another office. I may not run at all. I honestly don’t know.
“I love this office. I feel no pressing need to run for another office. One of the great things about this job from my perspective is how diverse it is. You go from medical/pharma/health issues to criminal issues to ethics, to corrections, pardons and paroles. I love the variety.”
His tone and demeanor relax. “I certainly walk into this job five years later with the same zeal I had the first day,” he says. “The only difference is I hope I’ve gotten to know more to be able to do a better job.”