AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Audit lays bare Georgia ethics commission's problems

The headline item in the audit of the state ethics commission, released Wednesday, was an allegation that former executive secretary Holly LaBerge may have paid nearly $11,000 in personal legal fees with taxpayers' money.

But the 58-page report contains lots of information showing how dysfunctional the commission has become.

For example:

Political Committees

The commission does not have a procedure in place to keep track of non-candidate committees. The most common of these are political action committees (PACs), but the classification also includes political parties, ballot issue committees, political caucuses, labor unions and other groups.

The unifying concept of all of these groups is they spend money to influence elections, which is why we want to keep an eye on them. These committees are supposed to register with the ethics commission and file reports once they are raising and spending money, and auditors found some 238 committees are registered in Georgia. You can find them here.

But the auditors said ethics staffers told them they did not have any procedure for determining whether a committee should be registered. The suggested solution was to cross-reference contributions candidates report receiving with their committee database to see if the committees are registered.


Late filers or non-filers?

This one is a real thorn in the side of politicians and others who have to file reports with the commission.

Auditors found the ethics commission's automated system was incorrectly labeling people who filed their reports late as never having filed them at all. Late fees stack up as time goes on, so this is a problem when someone who is a day or two late filing a report discovers, months later, that the commission's computer system has them as a non-filer owing thousands in late fees.

Auditors found that some former politicians and lobbyists no longer required to file were still being flagged by the glitchy ethics computers. You can check their system here.

But a database is only as good as the person entering data into it. Auditors found candidates with multiple filer IDs, assigned to them by the commission staff, causing some of the problems.

Also auditors found staff were not entering some forms sent in by mail rather than electronically filed, causing the computer system to report them as non-filers. Auditors reviewed a sample of non-filers of personal financial disclosures and found almost one in five had mailed their form in.

Auditors find no auditing

The state's political leaders have long said Georgia does not need to stricter limits on campaign contributions or lobbying spending because the information on both is reported quickly and is open to the public to view and judge.

That's great, except much of the information reported is confusing, inaccurate or both. The AJC has reported for years the commission does not review reports for accuracy and state auditors found the same thing.

Lobbying reports are a good example. Names often are misspelled or placed in the wrong field, groups and caucuses sometimes appear to be made up on the spot or at least poorly identified, among other curiosities.

Some other problems 

  • Because of inefficiencies, the commission has failed to collect millions in fees from politicians and lobbyists.
  • The late fees and fines it has collected have not been consistent, with waivers granted (or not granted) for reasons that often are unclear.
  • Open complaints, on average, are over three years old, and commission action on the cases is not tracked.
  • The commission does not have policies in place to ensure investigations are conducted consistently or thoroughly.

There are other findings, but you get the idea.

Commission Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow, in a written response to the audit, said the commission is taking steps to remedy the systemic problems, including LaBerge's recent firing and the first meeting in a long time when cases were actually adjudicated. A more detailed response from Stringfellow is anticipated. She has asked all press questions come to her, but she also has declined to speak directly to the press, so ...

Regardless, the real changes likely are out of her hands. Both Gov. Nathan Deal and his challenger, Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, have pledged to reform the agency if they are elected. Some in the Legislature are suggesting blowing the agency up and starting from scratch, which may happen.

In the meantime, the agency's two new lawyers are said to be plowing through a backlog of more than 200 unresolved complaints. That's one problem, but the state auditor has just given them a much longer to-do list.

You can download the full audit here.

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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.