Michael Register has spent the better part of his four-decade career rooting out evil either on the battlefield as a soldier and special operations expert or the streets as a police officer and commander.
Now as the newly-appointed director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the seasoned law enforcer is leading the state’s top law enforcement agency into a new arena of crime-fighting: Elections.
Register joins the GBI just as it is developing an Office of Special Investigations which will include election-related crimes. Securing the vote is a new role — albeit a state-mandated one — for the 85-year-old bureau.
“Mike has a strong track record of strengthening public safety and protecting Georgia’s communities,” Gov. Brian Kemp said when he announced Register’s appointment in August. “I’m looking forward to his impact on this important agency that makes our entire state a safer and better place to live, work and raise our families.”
Before state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 441 in April, it was up to either the state attorney general or secretary of state’s office to call in the GBI to look into allegations of election fraud. Under the law, which took effect July 1, the GBI can now initiate investigations into any allegations that cast doubt on an election’s outcome, going as far as seizing ballots or election machines. The agency also has subpoena power.
“Sure it’s an additional responsibility which I think is an important one,” Register, 60, told State Affairs.
And as Georgia heads into what promises to be one of the most contentious elections in years, some local election officials and political observers see the GBI’s new role as a controversial one.
Democratic strategist Theron Johnson worries that there may be efforts to “weaponize” the GBI and use the agency as a “potential tool of voter suppression.”
But Register insists the agency will not investigate any election-related crime “along party lines."
“We are going to have political blinders on,” said Register, who grew up wanting to be a police officer. “We're going to base the investigation on the facts. We’re going to search for the truth.”
Those who know Register say his previous police work and his military background, which included combat missions in Afghanistan and seeking out and destroying improvised explosive devices, make him a perfect leader at the GBI.
“I truly believe the governor made a great selection,” Register’s former boss, Clayton County Commission Board Chair Jeff Turner, told State Affairs. “Mike Register is very knowledgeable, experienced and very committed to the community as well as to making sure that law enforcement is seen in a positive light. He’s truly going to do a great job over at the GBI.”
Now friends with Register, who once headed Clayton County’s police department, Turner said the two have hung out on occasion, and he’s even had a chance to hear Register sing and play the guitar. “He wasn’t bad,” Turner quipped.
Register has also served as chief operating officer for a Florida company whose core business was providing support to critical missions for Special Operations Command and various intelligence agencies. And he served on the executive board of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
State Affairs recently spoke with Register about GBI’s involvement in technology and cybercrime, GBI’s new charge to oversee crimes related to voting, and the gang incident that was a turning point for him.
As you settle into the GBI directorship what is the biggest challenge you face internally?
The first is getting acclimated to the bureau, learning the complex mission of the GBI to ensure that I am effectively assimilating into the team here. Number two, continue to not only recruit the best people who can be ambassadors for the GBI but to ensure we continue to have a culture and other things that will ensure we have a high retention rate. Third, I want to make sure we have all the capabilities needed to address the operational environment now, and to understand three-to-five years down the road what that operational environment is going to look like.
What do you believe the GBI will be dealing with in three-to-five years?
We need to be involved in technology and cybercrime. We've got to make sure our sophistication in that area continues.
What internal changes will you be instituting as director?
Right now I’m in a learning and assessment mode. Whatever changes that are made, will be made, if any, after discussion with my command staff, supervisors and the men and women who work here.
Is there legislation or additional funding the GBI will be pursuing in the 2023 legislative session?
We are compiling that now. We will be pushing that forward for the legislative body and the governor to evaluate.
What's the biggest external challenge for the GBI and is that in line with your top three priorities as director?
We've got to continue to address the organized criminal element: Gangs. The big three [issues] that jeopardize the safety of the community are gangs, guns and drugs. That’s kind of a trifecta. So continuing to address that, to help our local and federal law enforcement partners make our community safer here in Georgia.
Then, there’s the increased crimes involving cybercrime in technology.
The third thing is to continue to ensure that we maintain the trust of the public because we have two critical missions that we do that really need the public’s trust.
That is the investigation of officer-involved shootings and Senate Bill 441.
Any irregularities or crime associated with the voting process now comes under the domain of GBI, which is the lead agency to investigate that. Both of those have high emotional potential. So it's important to me that the public know that from a GBI perspective, we're going to do the best job we can. We're going to be impartial. We are always guided by the facts and search for the truth.
Critics have said SB 441 circumvents the Secretary of State’s jurisdiction over investigating election-related crimes. Thoughts?
The Secretary of State's office is certainly one stakeholder in the election process. We'll work closely with that office and any other stakeholders that may be involved. We’ll be consistent. We'll be fair. We’ll be methodical.
The Georgia State Election Board recently asked the FBI to participate in an ongoing criminal investigation into the voting system breach in Coffee County. Will the GBI be taking the lead in this investigation or working with the FBI on that?
The GBI is involved in that investigation. Certainly we will work with other law enforcement partners as needed, including the FBI. But since it is an active case, I really can't comment any further.
Just to be clear, who is the lead investigating agency on this? GBI or FBI?
Well, currently the GBI’s involved in the investigation and I’ll leave it at that.
Georgia’s ban on abortion after six weeks, or the first detection of a heartbeat, took effect in July. What will the GBI’s role be in enforcing the law?
This is a new area for the GBI. Right now, we're continuing to assess what our involvement will be. And we'll also continue to have discussions with our local and other state law enforcement agencies pertaining to this issue, including district attorneys.
Does this put the GBI in a tough spot to have to carry out a law that essentially deals with people’s personal decisions.
Well, certainly, we respect everybody's rights, personally and any constitutional rights. Any investigation we enter into will be conducted with the utmost professionalism, transparency and respect.
If you found a case where an individual had violated the law, would you go as far as arresting that person?
That would be a conversation we would certainly have with the local prosecutor in that area. We certainly don't want to make decisions in a vacuum pertaining to emotional investigations such as that.
There’s been recent reports of an increase in threats against members of Congress nationwide. Has the GBI seen threats against Georgia’s congressional members or state lawmakers?
I don't have any first-hand knowledge of any active threats currently.
Any threats against any person that is a state legislator we’ll act upon it if it’s pertinent and comes to our attention. We work in unison with the state and homeland security apparatus to try to maintain awareness of any threats that may be posted against our elected officials.
Let's go back for a bit. Is there a case in your career that you’d do differently if you had the chance to do it over again? Is there a case you'd like to revisit in Georgia?
When I was the police chief in Clayton County, one of the cases there that had a tremendous impact on me was the gang activity that resulted in the death of the 11 and 15-year-old. When they went in and shot those two kids in cold blood in their bed that was a turning point for me in understanding just how violent gangs are and just how important it is for local law enforcement to address gang violence. It really does jeopardize the safety of our communities.
Countering gangs and gang violence in the state is one of the governor's top priorities. It's also one of the GBI’s priorities. So we work very hard with our local, state and federal partners in addressing that. Every time I think back to that incident, it really drives home the violence, the hurt and deadliness that come with organized criminal gangs.
I remember that case. It was brutal. Did they ever find out who did it?
One of those arrestees in that case was a teacher from one of the surrounding counties.
[The arrest] really communicated to me two things: The violence and the lethality of gangs but also that it's just not kids and gangs anymore.
Header: Mike Register, with his wife Keisha at his swearing-in ceremony on August 25, 2022 with Governor Brian Kemp. (Credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation)
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