Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s husband is renting out an airport hangar to the U.S. Marshals Service for what appears to be a domestic surveillance operation—at a very nice profit—in a deal shrouded in secrecy.
That operation, a nationwide cell phone monitoring campaign first reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2014, provoked outcry from Loeffler’s colleagues from Oregon last year, after local media discovered that a Marshals Service plane had circled for hours over an anti-racist protest in Portland on June 13.
Three days later, flight records show that exact plane touched down at Fulton County Airport in Atlanta, Georgia—where the Marshals Service leases space from Fulton County Hangar Services, part of the vast business empire run by Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher. The federal government renewed its rental relationship with the company the same month.
The hangar at 4165 South Airport Rd. Northwest, which Loeffler identified as one of her husband’s holdings in her first financial disclosure after her appointment to the Senate last year, sits along a scarred service route at the Fulton County Airport, off the main artery of Martin Luther King Drive.
The General Services Administration, which rents space on behalf of other federal agencies, confirmed to The Daily Beast that it has paid Fulton County Hangar Services almost $250,000 a year for the location since 2014, when Loeffler was still an executive at her husband’s company, Intercontinental Exchange, which also owns the New York Stock Exchange. The GSA added that it extended the lease for another three years last summer.
But the details of the arrangement are enveloped in layers of government and corporate opacity. Fulton County Hangar Services is a registered federal contractor, but its contracts are not available to view in any public database. The System for Award Management, a government search engine for tracking D.C.’s business dealings, classifies the information on the company as “restricted.” When pressed by The Daily Beast, the GSA declined to answer what agencies are stationed at the hangar and for what purpose, citing the “mission sensitivities of the federal tenants at this facility.”
The Federal Aviation Administration operated out of the hangar until November 2019 but told The Daily Beast that it is now a U.S. Marshals installation.
The Marshals Service refused to answer questions about its presence and activities at the hangar, and neither Loeffler, Sprecher, Intercontinental Exchange, nor Fulton County—which owns Fulton County Airport and leases hangars there to private tenants—responded to repeated requests for comment.
Public records yield a few clues. The Daily Beast found that several small Cessna aircraft registered either to the Marshals Service or to Early Detection Alarm Services, a company Buzzfeed exposed in 2017 as a front for the law enforcement agency’s aerial cell phone surveillance activities, have flown into or out of Fulton County Airport.
One such craft is the Cessna Caravan the Wiliamette Week newspaper spotted in the skies over unrest-rocked Portland last June, and which riled Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with several other congressional Democrats from Oregon. The tracking website FlightRadar24.com identified at least eight flights that this plane, with the tail number N1789M, made to or from the municipal airfield in 2020.
On three occasions, FlightRadar24.com shows the propeller-powered Cessna making prolonged loops around Atlanta or other portions of Georgia similar to those observed on the West Coast, though The Daily Beast could not correlate these trips with specific events on the ground.
Finally, Fulton County remits a small tax bill each year for personal property at the Marshals-occupied hangar to L3Harris Technologies. One of the federal government’s largest contractors, L3Harris famously manufactures the Stingray for the Marshals Service and other government agencies. The Stingray collects information by imitating a cell phone tower and fooling mobile devices into revealing their whereabouts and other sensitive data, which law enforcement officials can use to track their owners.
L3Harris did not answer repeated questions about their receipt of the tax bill, or about their assets at or access to 4165 South Airport Road Northwest.
The contract between the federal government and Fulton County Hangar Services preceded Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s appointment of Loeffler to the Senate seat by roughly six years, and there is no evidence she played any role in its original negotiation or in its renewal last year. The Daily Beast found records of aircraft belonging to Early Detection Alarm Systems flying into Fulton County Airport as far back as 2009—when the GSA says it was renting the same hangar from a North Carolina-based real estate company—and FAA directories date that agency’s presence at the site to 1990.
However, Fulton County Hangar Services is registered with the federal government in her husband’s name and with his personal contact information, and at the address of the lavish home they share in Atlanta.
The Daily Beast could also not find any record of a financial arrangement directly between Fulton County itself, which appears to own the hangar along with the rest of the airport, and Fulton County Hangar Services, even though documents of the previous arrangement with the North Carolina real estate firm are accessible on its website.
Rather, online records show a lease between the county and an Intercontinental Exchange affiliate called ICE 4165 LLC for one-and-a-half acres of land at the airport from 2016, two years after the contract between GSA and Fulton County Hangar Services began. The ground lease from the county grants ICE 4165 use of the space for 20 years with two automatic five-year renewals, at an annual rent of $20,597.16, plus a 3 percent increase every half-decade.
This is approximately 1/12th what the GSA pays annually to Fulton County Hangar Services for the use of 4165 South Airport Northwest. The lease shows no history of a bidding process, but cites the need to “insure the continuation of rental revenue to the county.” The rate is, however, comparable to what the North Carolina company paid the county during the previous decade.
Transparency experts marveled at the strangeness and inscrutability of the arrangements between Sprecher’s companies, Fulton County, and the federal government.
“Weird and secretive, which is a bad mix!” remarked Scott Amey, general counsel to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. “It would be big news if they are involved in violating people’s privacy or civil rights and the senator is making money from those activities.”
“I think that Loeffler and the U.S. Marshals Service should answer some questions about the lease and what is happening out of that space,” Amey added.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, suggested the tangle of public-private relationships resembles the sort of “cover” the U.S. has used to conceal covert military and espionage operations. What makes this particular situation unusual, he asserted, is that the arm of the federal government involved is the Marshals Service.
“This is a security measure employed mainly by intelligence agencies. It’s not something one would immediately associate with the U.S. Marshals,” Aftergood said. “It may be that the primary use of the facility is to support clandestine surveillance operations, which could explain the extraordinary secrecy.”
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