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Pitts may settle 8-year ethics dispute over campaign loans
On the eve of the 2001 Atlanta mayoral election, candidate Robb Pitts bounced a $45,000 check from his campaign fund.
Several campaign officials, scrambling to pay hundreds of get-out-the-vote workers, each made personal loans of $9,500 or more to cover the check. Georgia law treats those loans as campaign contributions, which at that time were capped at $2,000 from a single donor.
In October, three of those officials finally signed consent orders acknowledging that the loans violated Georgia’s Ethics in Government Act. Now Pitts — who failed to pay back some or all of those loans — may be about to do the same.
The question is: Will the State Ethics Commission make Pitts, now a Fulton County commissioner, pay back those loans?
Evidence in Pitts’ case was scheduled to be made public Thursday, but an administrative hearing was canceled at the last minute. Instead, Attorney General Thurbert Baker’s office agreed to present a proposed settlement, offered by Pitts’ attorney, to the Ethics Commission for a vote next month. Terms of the proposed consent order are confidential until it is final.
Lawyers for the state had been seeking fines of up to $7,000 against Pitts for accepting loans that exceeded statutory limits. In a Dec. 8 order, an administrative judge denied Pitts’ request to dismiss the ethics charges and ruled no statute of limitations applied.
Pitts, then president of the Atlanta City Council, pulled in 33 percent of the vote in the November 2001 mayoral race. Shirley Franklin, collecting a few hundred votes more than the necessary 50 percent, won without a runoff.
According to a 2002 lawsuit filed by campaign workers against Pitts, campaign consultant Melvin Collins had estimated get-out-the-vote efforts would cost as much as $70,000. Pitts signed a $45,000 check to pay the Election Day workers Collins had hired, but the bank wouldn’t cash it.
Campaign manager Daphne Bryson laughed, the suit alleged, when she learned the $45,000 check had bounced:
“Defendant Bryson laughed and advised plaintiff Collins that she knew there were insufficient funds to cover the check when she delivered it to Mr. Collins and stated that ‘I knew it wouldn’t (go through.) I just wanted to see if it could slide by.’ “
Collins asked several campaign officials to cover the check until Pitts’ campaign had the cash to make it good, according to the suit. Bryson allegedly told them more than $45,000 in contributions to the campaign had not cleared the bank yet.
Southern Co. CEO A.W. “Bill” Dahlberg and developer Robert L. Silverman, who were co-finance chairmen of Pitts’ campaign, each chipped in $9,500 to help cover the loan. Former Atlanta Board of Education chair Mitzi Bickers contributed another $11,693, while Collins and other Pitts supporters covered the difference.
Bickers, Collins and others, claiming the campaign never paid back the loans, filed suit in September 2002.
It remains unclear whether Pitts’ campaign ever paid back any portion of the $45,000 loan. The answers might be found in the case file for the lawsuit, but that file is inexplicably missing; clerks at Fulton County State Court searched late last year and said they couldn’t find it.
Dahlberg and Silverman never got back the $19,000 they had loaned the campaign, their attorney, James A. Washburn, said this week.
Both men were expected to testify at Thursday’s hearing. “They were subpoenaed by the Attorney General to testify and they were going to comply with the subpoena,” Washburn said.
Bickers did not return telephone calls seeking comment on whether her loan was repaid. Neither did Pitts or his attorney, Mark Trigg.
Washburn reported the loans in a June 2002 letter to the State Ethics Commission:
“These facts have become an issue in a lawsuit that has been threatened arising out of the Pitts Campaign. After conferring with counsel, Messrs. Dahlberg and Silverman understand that their actions may have violated the letter of the Ethics in Government Act. Rather than attempt to cover up their actions, they seek to resolve this matter and present it to the State Ethics Commission for resolution. Messrs. Dahlberg and Silverman will cooperate fully with the Ethics Commission’s consideration of this issue and hope to resolve this matter as expeditiously as possible.”