Ethics backlog undermines transparency

Lawton Jordan has been on the state ethics commission for nearly a year, but Tuesday’s scheduled meeting will mark a milestone for the Decatur attorney: his first opportunity to actually settle an ethics complaint.

The body officially called the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission has been in such a terminal state of decline for so long that its meetings for more than two years have dealt nearly exclusively with internal strife.

That could change with Tuesday’s meeting when commissioners are scheduled to dispose of nine ethics complaints and to vote on further investigation into four more.

It’s a start.

Since former executive secretary Stacey Kalberman was forced out in 2011, the probe into the 2010 campaign of Gov. Nathan Deal has been the commission’s highest profile case. That case ended with Deal paying a $3,350 fee, but controversy over how it was settled and whether Deal’s staff played a role in it, have dogged the commission ever since.

Meanwhile scores of complaints have been neglected. In April, recently terminated executive secretary Holly LaBerge announced in a commission meeting that no work had been done on 169 open cases in nearly a year.

Over the past month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted a thorough audit of 156 open cases stretching back seven years — the vast majority of the commission’s massive inventory of complaints.

Taken as a whole, the AJC’s review shows that commission’s failure to clear the backlog has crippled the the public’s right to know about the conduct of elected officials and candidates for office and harmed officials themselves by leaving open allegations that are untrue or could be dispensed with quickly.

Public officials complain bitterly that ethics complaints can be filed for the sole purpose of raising suspicion during an election. Yet the commission’s inaction over the past two years has allowed just that: suspicion raised is never dispelled and lingers from one election cycle to the next.

The newspaper found complaints ranging from petty partisan grievances to allegations of serious wrongdoing. Two thirds were filed in the past three years. The most common accusation is failing to disclose campaign contributions, but some politicians are accused of using their campaign account as a personal piggy bank or of using public employees or government resources in their reelection campaigns.

The backlog includes 37 complaints against candidates for state House or Senate, but also 11 against mayoral candidate and more than 50 against candidates for city councils and county commissions. Judges have outstanding cases against them, as do sheriffs.

More than a quarter of the complaints are so old they will likely be dropped because they exceed the statute of limitations.

In a written response to questions from the AJC, commission chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said commissioners obviously knew they were not voting on complaints, a problem she chalked up to “personnel issues.”

But she said they were “unaware of the full extent of how many cases that were open, how old those cases were, or how many were pending resolution.

“Unfortunately, there was no system in place for inventorying or tracking cases, thus there was no mechanism for the commission to independently monitor the case load,” she said.

Commissioner Jordan said the commission has made “steps in the right direction” by hiring two new staff lawyers. “The staff attorneys are working through the backlog of cases, and I expect that several months from now they will have made significant progress in that regard,” he said.

“But a lot of work remains to get the commission where it needs to be,” he added.

Diminished expectations

Currently, complaints are like stones dropped down a well: They make a small splash, then disappear. The ethics commission has been inactive for so long that many people just take it for granted that nothing will happen with their complaint.

In 2010, Marietta attorney J. Ronnie Knighton filed a complaint against State Sen. Judson Hill claiming he violated campaign finance law by using $4,717.86 in campaign contributions to pay for a trip to Germany in 2007.

Hill went to Germany with a delegation of House members on a trip sponsored by the Georgia Department of Economic Development, but stayed in Europe for an additional nine days, based on Hill’s campaign expense disclosures.

Campaign contributions can be spent to pay for “ordinary and necessary expenses” of running for or retaining elected office. In his complaint, Knighton questioned whether the European trip met that criteria.

Attorney Doug Chalmers, who represents Hill in the complaint, called the accusation “utterly nonsensical” and said using campaign contributions to pay to go on an economic development trip is allowed under Georgia law. He said Hill returned with the group and the accusation that he stayed on after the trip is wrong, he said.

Moreover, Chalmers said the complaint is so old that it would be difficult to address now.

“It’s a 4-year-old complaint concerning a 7-year-old trip,” he said. “Trying to prove or trying to defend such an allegation is unfair to all parties.”

Knighton said he hasn’t heard anything for the commission in years about the complaint.

“I figured the ethics commission just swept it under the table,” he said. “I recall when I filed it that I didn’t think they would do anything with it then.”

Doing the right thing doesn’t pay

It’s not just people lodging the complaints that get hung up in the backlog. The politicians themselves wait years for news of complaints filed against them, often by opponents or other political enemies.

In December 2009, a Carrollton resident filed a complaint against Mayor Wayne Garner — a former lawmaker, head of the Department of Corrections, a lobbyist and candidate for lieutenant governor — alleging he had not disclosed some of his assets, fiduciary positions and state income on his personal financial disclosure for the prior five years. Garner responded within a few weeks, disclosing his positions on several corporate boards and his previously undisclosed income as a lobbyist for the Haralson County Water Authority.

There is no more correspondence until nearly four years later when then-commission lawyer Elisabeth Murray-Obertein wrote the Carrollton city clerk to find out when the amended reports were filed.

“Not a word. I had forgotten about it,” Garner said. “We just amended it. And that’s the last I’ve heard of it.”

There are no explanations why some complaints remain open. This past March, James Stein, an attorney in St. Marys, filed a complaint against Dalton Mayor David Pennington for failing to file his personal financial disclosure on time.

Less than a month later, Pennington, who was running for governor, responded that he had indeed been late in filing his disclosure and noted that it had since been filed and that he had paid the required late fee. The case remains open.

Last December, a Butts County man filed a complaint alleging Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson had not filed his personal financial disclosures for three years. Wilson replied a few weeks later that he had indeed failed to file the reports. In fact, he said he had not filed a disclosure with the commission since 2005.

The judge was contrite, saying he thought he had filed all the required paperwork.

“I have never thought of looking on the website concerning late filings because I thought I was in compliance,” he wrote. “I would have assumed your agency would have sent some type of notification for late filing to collect late fees.”

Wilson included a check for $625 to cover the late fees, but the case has yet to be closed.

The complaints publicized by the local press and the glacial pace of the ethics commission offers little chance they will be resolved in time for voters to get the full story before they cast their ballots.

For instance, a complaint lodged more than two years ago against Fulton Magistrate Judge Melynee Leftridge claiming she funneled $18,532 to a company that teaches pole dancing is still active, despite the fact that a 15-minute search of campaign finance records showed the claim to be baseless. Leftridge, who was running for a seat on the Fulton State Court, was one of a number of Atlanta-area candidates hiring Pirouette Companies to do voter outreach and research.

The company, which did offer dance classes, is associated with Mitzi Bickers, a political operative and former aide to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Since 2012, Georgia state campaigns have paid the company almost $670,000 for services unrelated to pole dancing.

Two years ago, incumbent Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, and Republican challenger Dale Rutledge feuded over ethics, trading accusations in a race Davis called “the nastiest election I’ve ever seen.”

In the midst of the primary race, Rutledge filed an ethics complaint — against himself. In the complaint, Rutledge confessed to making a loan to his campaign and hiring a vendor three days before filing his paperwork to run for office — a violation, albeit a technical one.

Despite the fact that the complaint is essentially a signed confession, the case remains open.

Stringfellow said without some system to inventory and prioritize complaints, commissioners had no warning when a case “falls through the cracks.” She said two new attorneys, sought out and hired by Jordan and Commissioner Heath Garrett, are developing such a system now.

Violation or honest mistake?

That many complaints are politically charged is self-evident, yet they do raise interesting questions.

Less than a week before the 2012 general election, David Hopper, the Republican candidate for the House District 125 seat, filed an ethics complaint against incumbent Rep. Earnest Smith, charging the Augusta Democrat with not reporting campaign expenses and misreporting contributions as income.

Smith retained his seat with two-thirds of the vote. In an interview, Smith said the complaint was a “mean-spirited” attack by a political opponent and nothing more.

In his complaint, Hopper said Smith listed his campaign donations as honoraria on his personal financial disclosures, a portion of the report reserved for income derived from speaking fees and similar work. Smith said he has not heard a word from the commission about the complaint.

A review of his personal financial disclosures, where public officials report sources of income and fiduciary interests, shows Smith reported almost $10,000 in payments from political action committees representing the cable industry, unions, the Georgia Association of Realtors and others during the 2012 cycle. His campaign disclosures, where public officials report campaign contributions, show contributions of $8,800 for the same period, although the lists of contributors differ significantly.

Smith, who was first elected to the House in 2009, said he misunderstood how the contributions were to be disclosed, but he said it was not a conscious attempt to deceive.

“All of that has been clarified,” he said. “You see the name of the contributors. It was all in public view. You see the amount it’s not like I was trying to get away with anything.”

Smith’s filings still contain the erroneous information and not all of the money is accounted for. The AJC reviewed a sample of his filings and found several discrepancies.

For instance, the Georgia Credit Union PAC said in its campaign finance reports donations totalling $1,500 to Smith since 2012, but Smith reports receiving $1,000. Tractor manufacturer John Deere gave Smith $1,300 through its PAC, but Smith reported getting $800.

“Those are oversights,” Smith said.

Smith has reported receiving no money in 2014, but other committees and PACs report giving him $1,300 this year. Smith said he did not report any contributions because the exact amount “was still fluid.”

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this story.

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