Feb. 10, 2015 — A 2005 amendment to Georgia’s campaign finance law was meant to give smaller donors a break on filing public disclosures. A decade later, though, Senate Republicans applied the law to their own PAC, raising $276,000 over a 20-month period before disclosing even a penny of it.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that the law is so weak that $250,000-plus can be raised without being reported for so long,” said William Perry, executive director of the good-government advocacy group Common Cause Georgia. “This is a glaring example of how far we have to go in Georgia for fairer disclosure.”
Larry O’Neal would probably prefer to be remembered for anything other than a tax break seemingly engineered specifically for then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, a client of O’Neal’s law practice. Nevertheless, O’Neal is best known for authoring the 2005 bill that allowed his fellow Houston Countian to retroactively shelter capital gains by reinvesting the money in property in Florida. Perdue, who thus saved about $100,000 in taxes, said he signed the bill into law without realizing it would apply to him. IRS auditors later investigated and exonerated O’Neal, he said in a 2009 email to House Republicans. Neither Perdue nor O’Neal released IRS documents or correspondence that would back up that assertion. A 2007 ethics complaint about O’Neal’s conduct went nowhere.
O’Neal went into business with another Sonny from Houston County, former state Rep. Roy “Sonny” Watson Jr., in 2001 when they formed SONLAR LLC. In 2005, Sonlar bought a 61-unit assisted-living facility at auction for $2.5 million after the previous owner defaulted on revenue bonds issued by the Houston County Development Authority. SONLAR sold the property in August 2012 for $5.1 million.
For a decade, infighting, vitriol and litigation has been business as usual at Georgia’s state ethics commission. Three executive directors have resigned or been fired since 2006. Two other employees collected $405,000 in damages for allegedly wrongful termination. Lawmakers stripped the agency of 40 percent of its funding, its power to make new rules, even its name. Much of this has come to pass, critics say, because the commission answers to the very politicians it’s supposed to regulate and investigate. Legislative leaders set its budget, control its powers and, along with the governor, decide who its five members will be. It’s time, former ethics chief Teddy Lee says, for a truly independent commission. “It’s got to be set up in a way that it can’t be manipulated,” says Lee, “by people who have no desire to be overseen or second-guessed.”
Georgia’s Code of Ethics does not apply to members of local school boards, the Supreme Court of Georgia said today in a unanimous decision. The high court ruled that former Gov. Sonny Perdue had no authority in August 2010 to remove three members of the Warren County Board of Education for alleged misconduct.
Georgia law books are chock-full of statutes written to curtail undue influence on political activity and public policy. So utilities and insurance companies can’t give to a candidate seeking an office that regulates them. Legislators can’t take political donations while in session. Politicians can’t use campaign money for personal benefit. State workers can’t accept gifts from vendors or lobbyists.
Except when they can.
Time and again, Georgia journalists and watchdog groups have found that money finds a way to flow around those laws. These and similar findings underscore what can sometimes be a gaping divide between Georgia’s legal standards for public accountability, on the one hand, and everyday practice. In a new, state-by-state analysis of ethics and accountability practices, Georgia ranks 50th with a grade of F from the State Integrity Investigation.
Investigators have reportedly questioned Atlanta’s Stan Thomas about possibly illicit payments tied to development of a proposed Cayman Islands resort. Thomas has been in the headlines in recent years for his relationship with former Gov. Sonny Perdue and the somewhat spectacular collapse of his real-estate empire. Now, according to news reports, Royal Cayman police say they are investigating allegations that Thomas paid Cayman premier McKeeva Bush as much as $375,000 in 2004.
Ronnie Chance has neglected to disclose several aspects of his personal finances in recent years, most notably a condo in downtown Atlanta that he purchased from lobbyist Christina Searles Tai. Chance also omitted his service on the boards of directors of three local non-profit groups. (After the Transparency Project asked him about the omissions, Chance corrected several years’ disclosures to include the condo and his board memberships.)
Dec. 15, 2011 — Linda Schrenko, Georgia’s disgraced ex-school superintendent, says the feds owe her $195,000 taken as partial restitution for the money she stole from deaf kids. The Justice Department took the money in an illegal garnishment of her $4,500 monthly pension, said her attorney, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr. Schrenko also complains that inadequate medical care in prison for her sleep apnea has left her in “a severely debilitated state of health.”
The chairman of the Georgia Campaign Finance Commission, who says his appointment may have been illegal, is stepping down.
Patrick Millsaps, who initiated the personnel moves that cost the commission its top two investigators, will continue to serve until a replacement is named.
Attorney General Sam Olens – who’s taking on a larger role in investigations of public officials, political action committees and lobbyists — has raised more than a third of his campaign money from public officials, PACs, lobbyists and their clients. Donors include parties in high-profile inquiries into possible misuse of campaign funds or receipt of improper contributions.“There is always a potential for a conflict,” acknowledged Josh Belinfante, vice chairman of the campaign finance commission, “but I don’t think … that means a conflict exists.”
Fellow travelers Vincent Fort and Jim Wooten are among those who think Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, needs to resign over the chamber’s complicity in covering up the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. If he does, Williams will leave behind an annual salary nearing 7 figures.
Georgia’s juvenile court judges face a new, unprecedented set of challenges that could separate kids from their parents and make the state an “asylum” for runaway delinquents. As of Friday, Georgia will have no way to track down juvenile offenders who run away to avoid arrest or to return other states’ offenders who’ve fled to Georgia.