published Sunday, May 8th, 2011

47 Georgia lawmakers owe state money

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Forty-seven Georgia legislators, about 20 percent of the General Assembly, owed the state money as of Friday morning because they were late filing campaign finance reports — or didn’t file the reports at all, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of state records.

The sums involved are relatively small, but some of the late fees date back almost a decade. In total, legislators owe about $11,000 in late fees, according to state ethics commission records. These are the same legislators who write ethics laws and fund the ethics commission.

As of the end of 2010, the commission said, $300,000 in late fees was owed by more than 2,000 officials, candidates and committees, ranging from former Gov. Sonny Perdue to small-town city councilmen.

Longtime state House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said he was shocked that so many state lawmakers owe fees.

“Am I disappointed? I am beyond disappointment,” Wilkinson told the AJC. “Frankly, there is no excuse, and we should not tolerate it.”

Most of the worst offenders are Democrats. But some Republicans appear on the list, too.

The largest debt among Republicans, according to the ethics panel, belongs to Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette. Commission records say he owes $1,175 in late fees from reports due from 2002 through 2007. But his attorney, Doug Chalmers, said the commission made mistakes adding up the fees and that the true figure is less than half that much. He said many of the mistakes involved not filing copies of reports with both state and county filing offices.

Chalmers said Neal and the commission staff have agreed that he will pay $900 in fines and late fees. The commission still must vote on whether to accept the agreement.

Neal said, “Most of it was just oversight. I just had some things fall through the crack.”

COLLECTION WOES

State watchdogs say such fee disclosures are important so Georgians know who is paying for political campaigns and how candidates are using the money. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and other legislative leaders have cited the need for “transparency” at the statehouse.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution matched state legislators with the list of politicians owing late fees after ethics commission executive secretary Stacey Kalberman last week told her board that her agency didn’t have enough money during the upcoming year for mailings, including notices to candidates and officials that they failed to file disclosures on time.

William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said, “That is obviously one of the reasons why the commission is not being funded adequately. There is obviously not a lot of respect for the rules they are trying to implement.”

If lawmakers and others paid the fees, the state wouldn’t have to spend so much on mailing because it periodically sends out invoices.

Kalberman said the budget for the commission — formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — was cut about $80,000 for the upcoming year, or 8 percent. It has been cut the past few years, but so have other agencies’ budgets during the state’s fiscal crisis, which began in late 2008.

Even as lawmakers cut the panel’s budget, they also added new duties and extra costs to the ethics commission’s work. For instance, starting in January 2012 the agency will have to notify candidates and officials by certified mail that they failed to file reports on time, raising the estimated cost from 32 cents a notice to more than $5.50.

Kalberman asked for money to help pay the extra costs, but lawmakers said no.

Lawmakers point out that, starting next year, the commission will get to keep $25 when it collects late fees. That could cut the shortfall next year.

The commission says it collects on 50 to 60 percent of the fines it levies.

Part of the problem is that the size of the fines often doesn’t cover the cost of collecting them. If candidates or officials refuse to pay, the ethics commission must go to the attorney general’s office and ask it to file a court action. But with individual fines of $25 to $75, the cost of pursuing such cases tends to consume most or all of the money collected.

Late fees go up in January. The new range of late fees will be $125 to $1,000, which could make it worth the commission’s while to go after offenders more vigorously, lawmakers said.

The agency last week sent out invoices to politicians and candidates who it says owe money.

Some of the fees are going to be difficult to collect. The agency sent a computer-generated invoice recently to former Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker for the $300 it says he owes for not filing campaign reports in 2007 and 2008. Walker has been serving a 10-year federal prison sentence for mail fraud since 2006. Former Rep. Ron Sailor Jr. owes $575, the commission says, but he went to prison on a money laundering conviction in 2008. According to the federal prisons bureau website, Walker and Sailor remain incarcerated.

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who left office in January, owes $300 in late fees for not filing reports from 2007-2009, according to the commission. His campaign lawyer, Robert Highsmith, pointed out that Perdue shifted all his leftover campaign money to a federal political action committee. Highsmith said the former governor didn’t need to file state reports for his campaign.

Rick Thompson, who was the agency’s executive secretary at the time the fees were levied, said Perdue owes the money because he was still supposed to file disclosures showing whether he collected or spent money while in office.

HARD TO GET

Some legislators’ fees may be difficult to collect, as well.

State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale, owes $1,325 for 20 violations dating to 2005. In many cases, Abdul-Salaam has never filed the reports.

When the commission went after serial nonfilers in 2008, she said her home had been ransacked by burglars and some of the reports were missing. In an interview last week, she said she entered into a consent agreement to pay the late fees. But she hasn’t paid anything.

“I don’t have the money,” Abdul-Salaam said.

Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Lithonia, tops the list of lawmakers the commission says owes fees for not filing disclosures or filing them late. Stephenson, who was being paid $50,000 a month while serving as interim CEO of Grady Memorial Hospital in 2008, owes $1,575 in late fees, the commission said. Stephenson could not be reached for comment.

Because of voting problems, Neal ran three races in about nine months in late 2002 through mid-2003, and the lawmaker said he had to file an “overwhelming number of reports.”

Neal said he didn’t pay the fines immediately because he didn’t think the total amount was correct.

“I want to pay what I owe, but I don’t want to pay more than I owe,” he said. “I am just glad to get this behind me.”

The second-largest debt among Republicans, according to the panel, belongs to Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, who the state says owes $425 for filing disclosures late during the past three election cycles. Davis said he is disputing $300 of those fees because he said he filed the disclosures on time with Henry County officials.

Perry, the Common Cause director, called the number of lawmakers owing fees “baffling.”

“This is the perfect example of the kind of thing that increases people’s cynicism,” Perry said. “The general atmosphere seems to be that they [lawmakers] don’t want people policing them. It’s a classic case of ‘I guess the expectations of the rules don’t apply to me.’”

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