AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Free rent for private businesses operating in Fulton tax chief’s office

Within the halls of the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office, there’s a nondescript wooden door that leads into narrow room with row of computer terminals. The space is open to the public, for anyone who wants to research property records and tax liens.

But inside, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found five of the seven terminals commandeered by private businesses making money off those records. The public space looked more like private offices.

A group of abstractors – professional real estate researchers who work for closing attorneys and title companies – had their own fax machines plugged into the county’s phone lines. Company stationary and inboxes filled shelves. Stamps, calculators and binders covered desk space. Personal photos and a calendar were pinned above a work space, and someone had even left out a stack of lottery tickets.

They’ve been using this space for years, and they’re in the room almost every day, the AJC and Channel 2 found. They don’t have contracts with the county. They pay no rent nor phone, Internet or electricity bills. But the workers often leave their equipment and belongings in the room overnight.

"We don't consider it our office,” one of the abstractors, Stuart Sanders, said. “We don't get mail here. Nobody visits us here. We just come here to do the work."

It’s unclear if they have the county’s permission to settle in this way. An open records request filed by the AJC turned up no written agreements. Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, whose department houses the space known as the digest room, did not respond to an interview request.

Abstractor Jimmy Sanders, Stuart's father, said anyone can set up in that room. He has an inbox on the shelf, he said, so that attorneys can drop off documents for him.

"They never said anything about giving us permission to do it," he said of the county. "We just did it."

Not only do the workers plug in their own equipment, they have their own network passwords giving them high-speed access to computer records. Five of those logins have been suspended since Channel 2 and the AJC started asking questions.

An Atlanta ethics watchdog told Channel 2 that the county could be running afoul of the Georgia Constitution’s ban on gratuities, which forbids governments giving away resources for nothing in return.

"I mean, this is absurd," said William Perry, executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. "I just find it astonishing that it's almost become their personal office in this public space."

When the AJC and Channel 2 visited the digest room in mid-February, three companies had people working there – Pressley's Real Estate Tax Services, J. Sanders Real Estate Tax Service and Sexton Real Estate Tax Service.

None of those companies have private office space of their own. Their addresses are either homes or post office boxes.

Steve Sexton said he’s been using space inside the Fulton County Government Center since the early 1990s, when the building first opened. Before the housing market crash of the late 2000s, there was a lot more traffic in and out of the digest room, and there were more terminals, Sexton said. Much of the county's property data is now online, making the terminals even less in demand.

But county websites can take days to catch up with court filings. By using the terminals, Sexton said, abstractors get up-to-date data on tax liens directly from the county system, showing when liens are levied and when they’re paid off. This makes their reports to lawyers and mortgage companies, on whether properties have claims against them, airtight.

"It’s not a permanent office," Sexton said. "It is a public room, and if somebody wants to use that computer, there are times that we have surrendered it when somebody needs it."

One abstactor, though, had installed his Microsoft Outlook account on a public computer.

"He forgot to log out," Stuart Sanders said, referring to his father. "It's not our Outlook. We just use the county, use the Internet, to get to our email server."

Their level of access has raised security concerns. The abstractors have special logins and passwords, and an internal email shows Fulton County Information Technology staffers have been questioning this arrangement for years.

"We are trying to discourage those requests for obvious security reasons," a technical support worker wrote in 2009. "This is in violation of the generally accepted security policy."

Sexton said he and other abstractors got their own logins so they wouldn’t have to summon IT help every time someone mis-keyed the public access sign-in and locked everyone out. Sexton recalled someone in the Tax Commissioner's Office hooking them up with logins. That was years ago, he said, and who helped them he can't remember.

"It doesn’t give us access to any more information than the general public password would," Sexton said. "Our systems are set up in there for view only, and we’re restricted to what they allow us to view. We can make no changes in the system."

However, a spokeswoman for Commission Chairman John Eaves said the abstractors had high-speed access, something the general public doesn't get. Fulton County has launched an internal investigation into the arrangement.

"As I'm learning the details, it is disconcerting. It's over the line," Eaves told Channel 2. "They're utilizing our facilities well beyond what's expected for the typical person."

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