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Law, ethics agencies kiss & make up over case backlog
In 2003, then-Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett accepted three $10,000 campaign contributions – far exceeding limits in state law. The donors had each received loans from a questionable $2 million investment of public funds under Barrett’s control.
A Florida broker has finished a two-year prison sentence for persuading Barrett to invest the money in violation of state law. Her chief deputy, who took $10,000 in cash from that broker, died in 2008 in a federal prison cell in Texas.
But Barrett, who returned the donations and left office in 2004, is still waiting on the outcome of a 6-year-old ethics investigation against her.
Barrett’s case is one of dozens requiring legal action that had been pending for years when my colleague James Salzer wrote about them in 2008. At the time, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and the State Ethics Commission blamed each other for delays of up to eight years in resolving disputed ethics cases.
I checked last week to see whether the working relationship had improved. Stacey Kalberman, the agency’s new executive secretary, said the Law Department has been “very responsive” to the commission’s needs in recent months.
Baker’s office has whittled down the backlog and moved more quickly to force payment of delinquent fines, she said. A 2003 complaint against Senate Majority Whip Mitch Seabaugh should be settled next week.
But fines in some of the long-neglected cases wound up as little more than a slap on the wrist:
- Former House Speaker Terry Coleman paid $2,900 for making $38,000 in condo payments with campaign funds. Coleman, who was fined once before for converting campaign funds to personal use, said he hadn’t realized the mortgage payments would be a problem.
- Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald paid $3,000 for failing to report $122,000 in campaign donations and spending. A recommended $25,000 fine was reduced to $13,450 by an administrative judge and to $3,000 by the commission.
Now Barrett, too, is seeking a reduced penalty. She worked out a settlement with the Law Department, then withdrew it, and her attorney wants to renegotiate the fine. Officials won’t say how much Barrett had agreed to pay.
The lengthy delays may cost the commission some cases altogether. Robb Pitts’ 2001 campaign for mayor of Atlanta accepted $45,000 in improper last-minute loans – some of which were not reported or paid back.
Assistant attorney general Julie Anderson, pushing last year to resolve Pitts’ case with no fine nor restitution, said that might be the best deal the commission could hope for. A judge, she said, might dismiss the case because the charges were so old.
Commission members refused to give in and rejected a proposed consent order. Kent Alexander, a former federal prosecutor, said he’d rather lose in court, particularly when “an elected official who is an experienced campaigner violates the rules.”
Pitts has won two four-year terms on the Fulton County Commission since the ethics case was opened. He is seeking a third this November.
The Ethics Commission has offered to take cases to administrative hearings with its own lawyers, rather than Baker’s, to speed up the process.
“They want to do all the administrative hearings,” Kalberman said. “They certainly won’t let us go to court by ourselves.”
The Law Department says it can’t let that happen, citing Georgia law that gives it “complete and exclusive authority” to represent the executive branch.
That means the commission must rely on the attorney general even to collect delinquent ethics fines of several hundred dollars. So, for now at least, Thurbert Baker’s people will have to keep on doubling as bill collectors.