Legislation offering fine forgiveness to mayors, city council members and other local politicians began as a spat last fall between the state ethics commission and the Georgia Municipal Association, according to emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The two bills, first reported on by the AJC last week, would provide a “rebuttable presumption” of innocence for hundreds of local politicians fined for allegedly missing filing deadlines for campaign contribution reports and personal financial disclosures. The total late fees owed to the state is somewhere between $2.5 million and $3 million, but since the fines go back a number of years, it is unclear how much of that could legally be collected.
The legislation spawned from a dispute begun Oct. 10 when GMA sent an email to thousands of elected officials across the state saying the ethics commission was attempting to collect outstanding fines and warning of huge increases in the fines if officials did not take action immediately. The email outlined steps to waive the fines or get them reduced and “strongly recommended” officials contact the ethics commission.
At fault, theoretically, is the sometimes balky computer system used by the commission, which tended to shut down when hundreds of candidates tried to file their reports at the same time. But at least some local officials ignored their responsibility to file their reports or simply forgot and missed the deadline, commission lawyers said.
Within an hour after the GMA email went out, ethics commission attorney Bethany Whetzel sent GMA Director of Consulting Services Pam Helton a message complaining the commission had been “bombarded by phone calls and emails from local filers this morning/afternoon.”
Moreover, she said the email was wrong. Whetzel said she and fellow commission attorney Robert Lane were only sending notices out on late fees in cases where someone had filed a formal complaint against an official.
“I think your members don’t realize that if they don’t receive a certified letter notifying them of the increases that the fees are stayed,” she wrote.
In the following weeks, GMA and the commission argued over the wording of a follow up letter, but the two sides never came to an agreement.
“GMA refused to issue a simple notice that no late fees would be collected until the system was properly audited and officials were contacted directly by the commission,” commission chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said.
While the commission’s attorneys only wanted the letter to explain the procedure for inquiring about late fees, the GMA wanted to advise its members not to pay the fines until the records had been fully audited. In an annotated draft of the letter, commission attorney Robert Lane said he feared the letter would discourage officials from paying fees they legitimately owe.
Last year, the commission, which has been roiled by internal problems, collected about $56,000 in late fees, he said.
Negotiations got testy when GMA wanted a paragraph stating that the commission was only pursuing late fees in cases where someone had lodged a formal complaint against an official. Lane deleted the paragraph.
“While the commission was only pursuing late fees related to officials with open complaints, the events since October 10, 2014 have resulted in the commencement of a wider collection action,” he wrote.
In a follow-up email, GMA accused the ethics commission of being “disingenuous” and “vindictive” by pursuing fines simply because mayors and city council members had been agitating to have them dismissed.
Stringfellow spun it another way. The GMA email “resulted in 423 separate requests for audits” from local officials. It’s those audits that are the “wider collection action” Lane was talking about.
The argument has stirred up local officials and candidates on the commission’s late list.
Larry Savage ran an unsuccessful campaign for a Cobb County Commission seat in 2012 and ended his campaign with $500 in fines from the ethics commission for filing several disclosures late. Savage said he had no intention of paying the fines.
“If I live a million years I will NEVER pay up,” he said in an email to the AJC.
Savage said he spent hours trying to file his reports and could get no help from the ethics commission.
“Messages transmitted via the web site were not answers. Repeated phone calls to the agency were reliably connected to recorded message saying that the ‘mailbox is full,’” he said. “In short, not only was help not available, no human contact was even possible.”
A Senate committee tabled one of the bills — Senate Bill 127 — Monday to work on wording that would allow the ethics commission to fine bad actors while protecting those caught up in state computer snafus.