Ethics panel rejects Pitts consent order, heads to court
Robb Pitts and the State Ethics Commission are headed to court to settle an 8-year-old dispute over excessive and unreported campaign loans.
The commission Monday rejected a proposed consent order that would have closed the matter with Pitts paying no fine and no restitution. No statute of limitations applies, but commission members were told Pitts could still win in court and wind up with no penalty or finding of responsibility.
Kent Alexander, a former federal prosecutor, said he’d rather lose in court “than have the commission say an elected official who is an experienced campaigner violates the rules” and gets away with it.
As we reported last month, several campaign officials and supporters loaned the $45,000 needed to cover a bounced check intended to pay the Pitts campaign’s 2001 Election Day workers. (He lost the mayor’s race that year to Shirley Franklin.)
But those loans far exceeded the $2,000 limit on campaign contributions. Some of the payments were made to a campaign official, not the campaign, and thus were not included on Pitts’ financial disclosure reports.
Three of the lenders — Southern Co. CEO A.W. “Bill” Dahlberg, developer Robert L. Silverman and former Atlanta Board of Education chair Mitzi Bickers — admitted violations of the Ethics in Government Act last fall. Each signed consent orders with the Ethics Commission but were not fined.
Dahlberg and Silverman, who each loaned $9,500 for the get-out-the-vote effort, were never paid back, said their attorney, James A. Washburn. Bickers has not returned telephone calls seeking comment.
The allegations came to light in 2002 when Bickers and other lenders sued the Pitts campaign to get their money back. The dispute was settled, but the details are unavailable; clerks at Fulton County State Court searched late last year and reported the case file was missing.
Pitts, now a Fulton County commissioner, says the $45,000 check was blank when he signed it and he didn’t know “what ultimately happened” with the money, said assistant attorney general Julie Anderson, who represents the commission.
A five-year statute of limitations applies to ethics cases opened since 2003, but there is no limitation on older cases such as Pitts’.
An administrative law judge last year denied Pitts’ request to dismiss the charges because they are so old. But the judge allowed that portion of the case to be decided in Fulton County Superior Court where, Anderson said, he may make a “sympathetic argument” for dismissal.