Local officials violate ethics laws, but fingers also point to state commission

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 21, 2013 

More than half of the elected leaders serving Columbus in local or state offices violated a Georgia ethics law this year, according to state records.

Among the 45 local and state officials serving Columbus, 24 of them (53 percent) filed required documents late or not at all this year, according to the Ledger-Enquirer's review of records kept by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, formerly known as the Georgia Ethics Commission.

But many of those deemed in violation point the finger elsewhere. They say the statewide campaign finance filing system that started three years ago is the true failure in this boondoggle.

And they welcome the amended law that returns the filing system to local election boards next year.

The two documents at issue are the campaign contributions report and the personal financial disclosure statement.

In non-election years, such as 2013, the campaign contributions report must be filed twice, by June 30 (grace period ends July 8) and Dec. 31 (grace period ends Jan. 8). In election years, the report must be filed five times.

Elected officials also must annually file a personal financial disclosure statement covering the previous calendar year by July 1.

When the Ledger-Enquirer contacted the elected officials who have been in violation, their explanations for missing the deadlines or not filing at all ranged from apologizing and accepting responsibility to arguing and blaming the system.

The commission also is under-funded and under-staffed, officials say, which has led to inconsistent enforcement. Some officials say they receive notices reminding them of the filing deadlines; others say they never get those notices. And when the deadlines are missed, the commission sometimes has failed to assess the mandated late fees and is spotty when it comes to making violators pay.

Mark Cantrell, the Muscogee County School Board's representative from District 6, summed up the reaction of many local elected officials with missing or late filings when he said, "No doubt it was my duty to find out, but I didn't know anything was wrong."

Late fees and fines

Late fees are supposed to be imposed as follows:

• $125 for each report filed 6-14 days late.

• $250 for each report filed 15-44 days late.

• $1,000 for each report filed more than 45 days late.

If the commission finds an official in violation after an investigation and hearing, it has the authority to assess a fine of up to $1,000 for the first violation, up to $10,000 for the second violation and up to $25,000 for the third and subsequent violations. But the commission doesn't have the authority to remove an elected official from the ballot or from office. The Attorney General's Office also may pursue administrative proceedings and additional fines.

As executive director of the Muscogee County Elections and Registration Office for the past 18 years, Nancy Boren has a good sense of which local elected officials make good-faith attempts to comply with state ethics laws. In the past 10 years, she said, she can remember her office having to impose a late fee on only one local elected official for noncompliance.

"We wouldn't have violations because we would hound them until we got the disclosures," Boren said.

Hearing that the Ledger-Enquirer found 24 off 45 local elected officials are in violation this year, Boren suspects something else isn't right.

"What that tells me is that there is an issue with the filing process," Boren said. "There are those officials who really tried but missed the deadline because of technical issues. Then there are other officials who never file anything. There's a big difference."

The late fees don't distinguish between an official ducking the system and an official having technical trouble with the system.

Most egregious

District 8 school board representative Beth Harris is the most egregious scofflaw among Muscogee County's elected officials, according to the commission's records. She hasn't filed a campaign contributions report or a personal financial disclosure statement since she was elected in 2010, records show.

Columbus resident Nathan Smith filed a complaint with the commission Oct. 7 against Harris, who hasn't responded to attempts from the commission or the Ledger-Enquirer to contact her.

In a certified letter dated Dec. 3, the commission made a third attempt to serve Harris notice of the complaint, giving her 30 days to respond in writing. The letter states that the Nov. 7 second attempt was returned to the agency as unclaimed.

If the commission determines there is a basis to proceed, a hearing will be scheduled, the letter states.

Smith also submitted complaints Oct. 7 against two other school board members, Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3 and John Wells of District 2. The commission's staff attorney, Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, confirmed to the Ledger-Enquirer that Harris, Senior and Wells are under investigation, based on those complaints.

Senior's past two campaign contributions reports -- due June 30, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2012 -- were submitted late, postmarked Oct. 10, 2013, according to the commission's records. She hasn't filed a personal financial disclosure statement this year.

Senior declined to comment.

Wells filed his personal financial disclosure statement Nov. 1, a month after the complaint, according to the commission's records.

"I thought I was up to date until I checked," Wells said.

Commission omission

Obertein referred the rest of the Ledger-Enquirer's questions to Holly LaBerge, the commission's top officer as executive secretary. LaBerge, however, refused to answer the Ledger-Enquirer's questions.

"I don't speak on the record," she said.

A federal grand jury has subpoenaed LaBerge and Obertein in reference to ethics complaints involving Gov. Nathan Deal, according to an Associated Press report this month.

Boren can't speak for the commission, but she is familiar with the challenge it has faced.

"There wasn't a transition plan moving the disclosures from the local level to the state level," Boren said. "Elected officials and candidates in all 159 counties were required to disclose to the state ethics commission at a time when funding and staffing for that commission was cut.

"I have to believe the work load they faced must have been overwhelming. Stating that, I believe there were some bumps during the implementation phase that have continued the last two years. These have resulted in administrative issues regarding the ease and ability of filing disclosures."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sept. 16, 2012, that the commission's funding had declined 41 percent and its staff had been cut by almost as much over five years.

Invoices not sent

With 37 years of service, Red McDaniel of District 8 is Columbus Council's most-experienced member and also its most-habitual ethics violator, according to the commission.

Registered as Charles Emory McDaniel Jr., he hasn't filed any campaign contributions report during the past three years and no personal financial disclosure statements since 2011, commission records show.

As a result, he has compiled $625 in non-filer fees, according to the commission's website, but McDaniel contends the commission hasn't notified him of the reporting deadlines or the fees.

"I filed every time I was supposed to," McDaniel said. "We didn't get anything from the state or local board. Normally, we get something that says you've got to file by such and such date."

An invoice addressed to McDaniel for the $625 in late fees is posted on the commission's website. In fact, the commission has prepared invoices to collect late or non-filer fees from 24 elected officials serving Columbus. But every official the Ledger-Enquirer has contacted about this issue claims to not have received such an invoice. And those violations go back as far as four years ago. Since 2009, those officials have combined to be assessed $9,600 in late or non-filer fees, paying $925 and still having $8,675 unpaid.

School board members Cathy Williams (county-wide) and Shannon Smallman (District 7) also owe $625 in late or non-filer fees, according to the commission. They echo McDaniel's assertion that they haven't been notified about the fees.

The local officials with the biggest bills are State Court Judge Maureen Gottfried ($1,000) and District Attorney Julia Slater ($850), and both said the commission hadn't notified them that they were delinquent.

The governor promoted Gottfried to Superior Court judge this month, effective Jan. 1, and Slater was among the five finalists.

Glitches

Gottfried racked up her fees, she said, by mistakenly sending her reports through regular postal mail.

"Apparently, the law says it has to be sent by certified mail or overnight" if it's not e-filed, Gottfried said. "It's my fault."

Slater explained she was "under the impression that (personal financial) disclosure statements were due only in election years. I don't see any record of notification that it was due or that it was missing."

As for her late campaign contribution reports, Slater said the e-filing system has been exasperating. "I've been on there literally hours," she said.

Many other local elected officials say have had similar problems e-filing on the

commission's website.

Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters has an eight-year history of being in complete compliance, but the commission's records show his personal financial disclosure statement for 2012, which was due by July 1, 2013, wasn't filed.

After the Ledger-Enquirer contacted him, Peters said he checked his online account again and found that the disclosure statement he had tried to e-file along with his campaign contributions report July 1 was hung up in the system, still designated as a "working report." Upon further review, he found the confirmation receipt acknowledged only his contributions report, not the disclosure statement.

"I never checked further on the matter nor did I ever get a late notice," Peters said.

Although the commission records show Peters' disclosure statement was e-filed more than five months late, Dec. 13, its website contradicts itself by not listing Peters as a late filer and not incurring a late fee. Records show many officials have filed late or not at all but still haven't been assessed a fee.

"The commission needs more resources to be able to do everything it is asked to do under the statute," said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who serves on the senate's ethics committee. "Until it's properly funded, we'll continue to see that."

Amended law

The Georgia Legislature amended the state ethics laws during its 2013 session with HB 143. Starting in January 2014, local elected officials may again file their reports with the local board. The local board then will forward that information to the state database.

"Moving the disclosure process to the local level will provide local election officials the opportunity to have a working relationship with the elected officials and the candidates," Boren said. "While it is an additional process, it is one that we are accustomed to handling and one that we were successful in managing prior to 2011."

Superior Court judges, state legislators and the district attorney will continue to file directly to the state commission, Boren said.

Local elected officials praised Boren and her staff for consistently notifying them when reports were due.

"When we were doing it locally, you had a face, a voice," said Columbus Councilor Glenn Davis of District 2. "Nancy Boren was good about calling us to not forget to get our information in. It was seamless. … Like the crap going on in Washington with this health care initiative, I guess the state didn't realize what they were getting into."

McKoon also mentioned the federal government's health care website -- but to make a different point.

"The problem with the electronic system historically has been if you wait until the last minute (to file)," McKoon said. "Like the health care website, you have this huge spike in traffic, so the website can't handle it well. The commission has been told they can waive the late fee, but the bottom line is you have plenty of opportunity to file and plenty of notice."

Epilogue

The commission's website lists nine employees and one staff opening: the director of education/information. An exchange of emails between Boren and the commission two years ago indicates how overwhelmed the system had become even in the first month local elected officials were required to file directly to the state commission instead of the local board.

In a Jan. 28, 2011, email to Maria Bazile, the commission's education coordinator, Boren wrote, "Several of our elected officials have requested a workshop on the new filing requirements effective January of this year, hoping that I could volunteer to host a regional meeting for all elected officials or their designees to go over what is now required. Would this be a possibility?"

It took two months for Boren to receive an answer. In an email dated March 22, 2011, Bazile wrote that state law prohibits a governmental official from providing such assistance. Bazile said questions about the filing system should be addressed to the commission.

Bazile's email ends with this tagline: "How well did I serve you? Contact my supervisor …"

That message stands in stark contrast to one from Boren's office this past week.

In a Dec. 17, 2013, email to local elected officials, Jeannette James, the ethics liaison at the Muscogee County Elections and Registration Office, wrote, "I am very pleased that we will be responsible for your disclosure information beginning January 2014. … You can always contact me at either phone number below or at this email with any questions or concerns."

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