Georgia ethics panel trying again to collect millions in late fees

The state ethics commission is trying to address what it sees as a long-running problem: getting local elections officials to pay the fees they owe when they don’t file reports — such as campaign disclosures — on time. Or at all.

It’s not a small amount of money the agency is after. Officials said in 2015 that the state is owed between $2.5 million and $3 million in late fees. Other reports put the debt much higher, although some of it has been written off as uncollectible.

But some city officials in Georgia who would be tasked with keeping track of filings and turning in their local elected officials for skirting or ignoring campaign finance laws are balking at the idea.

The ethics commission last week reviewed a proposed regulation that would mandate that “local filing officials,” typically city or county clerks or the like, send monthly reports to the agency detailing who had failed to file various reports on time.

Timely reporting is considered important by watchdog groups because it lets the public know who is funding the campaigns of politicians. It doesn’t do the public a whole lot of good, for instance, for candidates to file a report on who paid for their campaign when it is turned in well after the election has occurred.

Elected officials and candidates can be assessed a graduated series of late fees, ranging from $125 to $1,000.

Local officials aren’t the only ones who run up late-fee tabs. A 2011 Atlanta Journal-Constitution report found that about 20 percent of state lawmakers owed the state money for either filing campaign reports late or not filing them at all.

Stefan Ritter, the executive secretary of the commission, said in some cases local clerks have waived late fees for local officials or collected fee money and not sent it to the state. He said for years the state had not been collecting much of the money it was due.

Dennis Cathey, the vice chairman of the commission, said, “Some people are not paying, and it’s just not fair.”

But commission members put off approving the regulation after the Georgia Municipal Association, which represents cities, and city clerks voiced concerns.

Rusi Patel, a senior associate general counsel for the GMA, questioned whether the commission has the legal authority to make clerks report on their local officials. He said the state commission can’t, by law, force local officials to create new reports or documents — an accounting of the late filers.

Amy Henderson of the GMA said most municipalities in Georgia are small and clerks all but run the local governments on a day-to-day basis. Keeping track of late filers and making reports to the state would add to their workload.

GMA officials also said they’ve heard of no cases where local clerks collected the late fees and didn’t turn the money over to the state.

The late-fee issue has been raised several times in recent years at the statehouse.

Lawmakers passed a bill in 2016 that would have granted local officials amnesty from several years worth of outstanding ethics fines.

The bill would have wiped the slate clean for thousands of county commissioners, mayors, school board members and other local officials who did not file campaign finance reports from 2010 to 2014, as long as they made amends by filing those missing reports by the end of the year.

The state ethics commission’s computer system for years was overwhelmed, and many of those local officials who were fined claimed they filed on time but the commission’s system didn’t work properly.

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill, saying he opposed retroactive amnesty and raising concerns that the commission would have to refund fines, fees and penalties that had already been paid.

During the 2017 General Assembly session, House Bill 399 would have allowed the commission to pass regulations to require local governments to disclose more information, but it stalled in the chamber.

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