AJC Watchdog: Little sunlight on local campaign donations

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 Local
David Barnes
Jim Yates, right, and Shelia Messamore, left, wave to passing cars outside the polling station at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta in March. Candidates for local offices file campaign reports to their local jurisdiction, a process that can make it harder for citizens to access them. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Four years ago, the Georgia General Assembly passed a little-noticed change in state law that has resulted in dramatically less sunlight on who is paying to elect candidates in local races.

The legislation — House Bill 143 — said candidates for county or city offices no longer had to file their campaign contribution and financial disclosure forms with the state ethics commission. Instead, they could give those forms to their local filing officer, usually a city clerk or county election superintendent, who would then forward them on to the state.

The change answered a simmering complaint from local officials who liked logging into the state ethics commission’s online filing system about as much as they liked oral surgery. They had good reason.

At that time, the ethics commission was in free fall. The commission’s irresponsible, erratic leadership and a multitude of technical problems caused endless grief for candidates at all levels.

Today, the commission has improved dramatically under the steady hand of Executive Director Stefan Ritter, a lawyer who took the job in 2015 after a long tenure in the State Attorney General’s office. The technology has improved dramatically as well, but local officials are slow to forget those old wounds, said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association.

“There were so many issues before there is not a lot of trust (in the state system),” she said. “When your name is on a website saying you haven’t filed these forms and you know you have it is very frustrating and they took it personally.”

‘System is broken’

But lawmakers’ solution to that problem has created problems of its own, including a near total lack of accountability at the local level. “Right now I think the system is broken,” Ritter said.

Ritter said citizens don’t have an easy path if they want to find out about the money behind their local candidates or what possible conflicts of interest those candidates might have. Those filings are now the responsibility of “local filing officers,” who generally are county election superintendents and city clerks.

These filing officers are required the gather forms showing the money that goes into local campaigns and the financial entanglements of candidates for office in their jurisdiction and pass that along to the state ethics commission. That’s not happening in a consistent way, and as a result, you cannot find local campaign finance data on the commission’s website prior to 2014.

One thing hampering the collection of data is that HB 143 allowed local filing officers to send their forms by fax. Cue Huey Lewis because we’re going back in time.

Henderson said electronic filing is a still a real problem for some local officials who do not have access to, or experience with, the internet.

“In rural areas of the state, computer access is not what it is in the metro area,” she said.

HB 143 relieved local candidates from that burden, but in the process it absolved them from blame if local filing officers do not get the forms to the state in a timely (or even legible) fashion. And there is no provision to penalize clerks if they don’t send all the documents in on time.

State ethics officials in Atlanta have no idea if the filing officers from the nearly 700 cities and counties in Georgia are giving them all the documents submitted or even a complete accounting of the candidates.

My test flops

Of course, if a citizen is interested in who contributed to their mayor’s re-election or the personal financial background of their school board member, they can get in touch with city hall or the county courthouse and arrange to view the documents. But results may vary.

I decided to test it out by contacting the clerk in my old hometown of Fairburn in south Fulton County. The stakes were low: The city just elected a new mayor, but she ran unopposed.

In an email, I asked the clerk if the city’s campaign disclosures had been submitted to the state, and if not, whether they were available somewhere on the city’s website. I got a quick response saying the documents had been sent to the state, but no answer to where I might find them.

The reports are not available on the state ethics commission website. After a subsequent email asking if I would need to come to Fairburn City Hall, I got a call back from the clerk who had done some research to find out for herself that the reports weren’t on the state ethics commission website.

Ultimately, she said I could come to City Hall and look at the records, but she politely asked if I would submit an open records request first. Under state law, officials can take up to three working days to respond to such a request. The clerk said she just wanted a paper trail to show officials in case they wanted to know why she was giving out “their information.”

It’s not a fair test. Here was a reporter snooping around asking a city employee about the campaign filings for her new boss. Despite it being a routine request, the clerk’s reply copied the outgoing mayor and interim city manager, and I can’t blame her.

But that reaction is exactly why the system is broken. It places employees in a position of ensuring accountability for the elected officials who hire them. Direct filing with the state would get these clerks out of the crossfire.

Outsourcing the state’s job

Ironically, some local candidates are filing electronically — just not with the state. Shortly after HB 143 was signed into law, a sharp group of tech entrepreneurs founded Woodstock-based EasyVote Solutions LLC  to provide online campaign finance filing services.

Since then, dozens of cities and counties across the state have spent public dollars so candidates can file their paperwork online and residents can view them.

The city of Johns Creek paid $2,500 to EasyVote for its filing services. Fulton County paid the same firm $153,000. Essentially this is double-charging taxpayers who already are paying state taxes to support the ethics commission.

One big problem with the current system for local filers is there is no way to search for contributions across multiple races. That’s important if you are interested in the power of contributors from vendors who might be influencing races in multiple counties and cities at the same time.

Here at the AJC, we are taking steps to collect local campaign filings available online and make them searchable for our readers. It’s time-consuming and the results will be incomplete, but we think it’s better than nothing.

This is the state’s job, but it will require action from state lawmakers to make these races transparent again.

It will take some convincing and the state ethics commission will have to prove to local officials that they can be trusted with the job. It won’t be easy, but ultimately it is the result voters have a right to expect.