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Sembler donations went undisclosed until election was over
By JIM WALLS
June 25, 2009 — Eugene Walker failed to disclose nearly $20,000 in campaign donations from a developer seeking a multimillion-dollar tax break until after his Dec. 2 election to the DeKalb County school board.
The donations – and Walker’s service on both the school board and the DeKalb Development Authority — have become a focus of community opposition to the Sembler Co.’s request for a 20-year, $52 million property tax break.
Last week, the authority tabled the proposal and Walker, its chairman, recused himself from the deliberations. He insisted the money from Sembler interests had not influenced him and had been fully disclosed.
“From Day One, I have been totally transparent,” Walker said at the June 18 meeting. “Every penny … has been reported.”
In fact, campaign records show Walker disclosed virtually all of the Sembler-related donations on Day Two – the second day after he won a Dec. 2 runoff election. Georgia law requires candidates to report contributions promptly so voters have access to that information before casting their ballots.
In an interview, Walker said donations were reported as they came in but that he delegated responsibility for the disclosures to his campaign staff.
“I was trying to win,” he said. “My time was better invested in shaking hands than in filling out forms.”
Walker did report a Sept. 19 donation of $2,300 from Dan McRae, Sembler’s bond lawyer. But the disclosure came Nov. 17, in a report filed nearly a month late and nearly two weeks after the Nov. 4 general election.
Walker’s campaign did not report an additional $19,200 in donations from Sembler family members and executives until Dec. 4, two days after he won the runoff. The campaign reported receiving $10,000 on Sept. 27 and $9,200 on Nov. 19.
The campaign may have received the money even earlier, according to Walker’s campaign treasurer, Constance McCrary, who is also his sister-in-law. In an interview, McCrary said the dates recorded for donations were the days she deposited the money in the bank, not the dates on the checks.
Some contributions were disclosed late, McCrary said, because it took her time to gather information – required for the reports — on who employed the donors.
“I wasn’t really looking at who it was from as much as trying to follow the correct procedure,” she said.
She said she typically asked Walker for that information if it wasn’t recorded on the check, but she didn’t recall if she asked him who the Semblers were.
The school board filed a complaint last week seeking to block a vote on Sembler’s request and questioning Walker’s objectivity. “The campaign contributions by individuals affiliated with Sembler, which stands to gain from the vote by the Development Authority, appear to create an objectively reasonable probability of actual bias,” the complaint said.
The complaint was amended Tuesday to drop Walker as a defendant and omit any reference to the contributions.
Election records show Walker qualified to run for the school board Sept. 8. The next day, documents on file with the development authority show, he met with McRae. Later that day, McRae asked Walker if he could speed up a vote on a bond resolution for Sembler, the records show.
Walker said he and McRae are “the best of friends.” He said he doesn’t recall if he asked McRae for a donation that day, but he wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
“I guarantee, everybody that I talked to I asked for a contribution to my campaign,” he said. “I was totally unabashed about trying to raise money.”
But, he said, Sembler could not buy his vote. “They couldn’t buy nothing from me because there was nothing I could sell them,” he said.
On Oct. 14, the authority approved a $244 million bond issue for Sembler’s Town/Brookhaven project on Peachtree Road. The bonds were later validated with graduated tax breaks valued at about $20 million, but were never issued.
The developer came back in April seeking a 20-year, 100 percent tax abatement on another portion of the project that could save it $52 million.
Sembler president Jeffrey Fuqua told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that the company plans to ask for a scaled-down tax break.
Walker said Sembler never would have gotten the 100 percent deal anyway, but critics did not give the authority a chance to make its decision.
“There was no way Sembler could get a 100 percent abatement,” he said.
Walker attributed the criticism of his actions to “mean-spiritedness” and “demagoguery.”
“It just overwhelms me,” he said. “It’s beaten me down.”