After a 90-minute hearing Thursday in Atlanta, a state ethics commission chose not to pursue a complaint against Muscogee County School Board representatives Frank Myers and John Thomas for their efforts last year to defeat two board candidates in a runoff.
The hearing was to determine whether the board found “probable cause” to further investigate the actions of the committee “School Reform 2016,” through which Myers and Thomas funded a campaign against Cathy Williams, who won the July 26 runoff for the school board District 7 seat, and Pat Hugley Green, who was re-elected to represent District 1.
Myers and Thomas were supporting opponents Sheila Williams for District 7 and JoAnn Thomas-Brown for District 1.
Though the ethics panel now called the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission chose not to pursue the case, it also did not dismiss the complaint. The effect was to table the matter.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Paige Adams made a motion to further investigate the complaint, but no one seconded her motion, so it failed. A motion to dismiss the case got a second, but failed as one commissioner voted for it and another voted against.
Stefan Ritter, the commission’s executive secretary, said the matter likely will be resolved with a “consent order” outlining the board’s findings and clarifying the law.
Had the commission found probable cause, the complaint would have been referred to the Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings for further investigation.
At issue was whether School Reform 2016 was acting as an “independent committee” that does not coordinate with individual candidates, or as a “political action committee” that does.
Were it an independent committee, it would have to register with the ethics commission and file contribution and expenditure reports. School Reform 2016 didn’t register as an independent committee, and filed no disclosure reports.
Myers insisted Thursday that School Reform 2016 was a PAC or political action committee that coordinated closely with candidates, and it did not have to register as a PAC because it never collected $25,000, the threshold at which a PAC must register.
Unlike independent committees, PACS are limited in how much they can contribute to a candidate in an election cycle. Independent committees have no limits.
School Reform 2016 funded campaign T-shirts, signs, mailers and robo-calls the candidates recorded,. It had a website called “NoMorePatAndCathy.com,” and spent $4,858 on TV ads, said Bethany L. Whetzel, the commission’s deputy executive secretary.
Whetzel disputed Myers’ claim that School Reform 2016 coordinated with the candidates on the TV ads. Whetzel said she called each candidate Tuesday, and each denied having seen and approved the ads in advance.
Myers denied that: “I would never put up something they didn’t approve,” he said.
But neither Myers nor Whetzel had sworn affidavits from the candidates, who did not attend the commission meeting. Some commissioners felt they needed more information than conflicting testimony.
“There’s just not a lot of evidence one way or another,” said Commissioner Jake Evans.
Whetzel also told the commission that if School Reform 2016 acted as a PAC, then it exceeded the limit on individual donations during the runoff.
The law limits a PAC’s general election donations to an individual candidate to $2,600, and runoff donations to $1,400. School Reform 2016 gave $3,906 to Sheila Williams and $2,429 to Thomas-Brown for the runoff, Whetzel said.
Myers disagreed, saying their runoff donations were well below the limit.
Because the commission made no decision Thursday on whether School Reform 2016 was independent or a PAC, it had no reason to pursue the issue of runoff donations.
Myers said the commission’s finding no probable cause was a victory for him and Thomas, ending 14 months of controversy. He repeatedly said during the hearing that he hoped it would settle the matter once and for all.
“I want this to be done,” he said.
Ritter said the commission wants to end it, too: “We don’t want this to linger.”