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Councilman stung by ethics fine pushes oversight of ethics officer
By JIM WALLS
March 14, 2012 — An Atlanta city councilman who tangled with the city’s ethics officer last year wants to place that job under the council’s control.
Councilman Lamar Willis‘ proposal would establish similar procedures for appointing two other watchdog positions — the city auditor and the director of the city’s police oversight panel, the Citizen Review Board.
If approved, ethics board Chair Caroline Tanner said, the proposal would politicize the appointment process and jeopardize the independence of the board. Former ethics officer Ginny Looney, who resigned last summer, won ethics settlements with penalties of up to $15,000 against Willis and five other council members since 2008
“I think it would be difficult to get somebody who would do the job effectively if it’s a political appointment,” Tanner said.
Willis said his proposal has nothing to do with frustration over the board’s investigation of donations by current and potential city vendors to a foundation set up in his name. Nor is it motivated, he said, by his complaint a year ago that the board’s case against him was “piling on” and not even “remotely necessary.”
“One thing has nothing to do with the other,” Willis said Monday in an interview.
The ethics board in mid-January chose Stacey Kalberman, former executive secretary of the Georgia Campaign Finance Commission, for a five-year term as ethics officer on a 7-0 vote. The council, which must confirm the board’s selection, has been sitting on that nomination ever since.
Under Willis’ proposal, the ethics board would forward the names of three finalists and all supporting documentation about them. A council committee would then review the list and make its own recommendation to the full council. The language does not specify that the committee would have to recommend one of the ethics board’s three finalists.
Similar procedures would be followed for choosing the city auditor and the director of the Citizen Review Board.
Willis said his proposal is not intended to block the appointment of Kalberman. He added that he has high regard for the woman Kalberman would replace.
“Ginny Looney and I had a very cordial relationship,” he said. “Me getting fined had nothing to do with me and her. It had to do with me making a mistake.”
At the time, though, Willis complained that he’d already paid plenty for that mistake and that the ethics board’s investigation was excessive. In a February 2011 email to Looney, a copy of which is in the board’s investigative file, he wrote:
“Let’s be clear, it’s been four years since this issue has come to light. It has been five years since any donations for the foundation were solicited. I have been punished publicly, privately, personally, professionally and financially! When is enough – enough? This really feels like piling on! While I understand how you are looking at this case, when I look at this matter as it relates to all of the other cases your office has seen, there haven’t been any other that has had the life that this one has had! The outside punishment, the outside spectacle, the financial costs. etc. as this case has had. To be completely candid, given all that I’ve had to deal with, I don’t believe it is remotely necessary for you and your office to do what you are doing! Therefore, while I am ready for this matter to be over with, the piling on has to stop!”
Shortly after sending that email, Willis agreed to pay a $3,500 fine for accepting tens of thousands of dollars from current or potential city vendors to fund scholarships to high school students. Receipt of those donations violated the city’s ban on accepting gratuities.
The foundation claimed it had was a 501(c)(3) organization and that donations were tax-deductible, but the IRS never granted it tax-exempt status, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2007.
State investigators later found that the foundation had received $286,062; of that amount, a net of more than $35,000 was transferred to Willis’ personal and campaign bank accounts. They also found $11,900 in withdrawals by Willis and $38,619 of unexplained cash withdrawals.
The Georgia Secretary of State eventually fined Willis $25,000 in 2009 for failing to register the foundation as a charity in Georgia. In another email to Looney, Willis said state and federal investigations cost him nearly $60,000 in tax obligations to the state plus tens of thousands of dollars paid to accountants and attorneys.
Willis reiterated Monday that his proposal is unrelated to Looney’s investigation. He said he simply wants to adjust the checks and balances over the auditor and the ethics and police review boards, “not to say that any of those boards have run amok.”
“I didn’t politicize the situation,” he said. “I introduced legislation. I did it in a very open, transparent way.”
In addition to Willis, council president Ceasar Mitchell and four other council members have settled investigations with the city ethics office since 2008:
- Mitchell paid a $5,000 fine and $10,000 restitution for consulting fees paid from his city expense account to his brother’s business.
- Kwanza Hall paid $11,950 in fines and restitution in 2009 for using city funds to pay for campaign software.
- Cleta Winslow paid a $1,500 fine plus restitution in 2010 for spending $5,420 from her city expense account to print and distribute a campaign newsletter in the days before the 1009 city election.
- C.T. Martin paid a $250 fine for waiving rental fees for the use of City Hall for weddings and receptions.
- James Maddox, who left office in 2009, paid $812 for getting city workers to repave a portion of his driveway under terms unavailable to other citizens.