Ethics case on hold after Fulton commissioner challenges board’s powers
By MAGGIE LEE
The Fulton County Ethics Board has placed its yearlong investigation of County Commissioner Lynne Riley on hold, after her attorney filed a last-minute lawsuit challenging the board’s jurisdiction.
The lawsuit alleges that any Ethics Board hearing against her would be “void for vagueness and in violation of her constitutional rights” such as free speech and freedom of association – because she’s part of a group that supports secession from Fulton County.
She seeks the reconstitution of Milton County, a once-independent county that roughly covers Fulton above Interstate 285. Nearly a year ago, six Democratic state representatives from Fulton asked the Ethics Board to decide if it is unethical for the commissioner to support the breakup of her county.
That board is illegal anyway, argues the new lawsuit. Five of the seven board members are named by professional bodies: a pair of bar associations and a trio of chambers of commerce. Riley and her attorneys contend that the power to appoint board members rightly rests with the commission and cannot be delegated to private bodies.
Indeed, the commission does not ratify those five board appointments. But any legally-binding board decision is subject to review by Fulton County Superior Court.
The board voted Wednesday to wait for a judge’s ruling on Riley’s challenge. Board Chair Donald P. Edwards believes both sides want prompt resolution.
The Ethics Board has been seeking Riley’s participation in the investigation since mid-2009. But two delays were allowed when she or her attorney, state Rep. Wendall Willard (R-Sandy Springs), said they couldn’t attend. Last month, Willard challenged the Board’s right to make Riley take an oath in that early stage of investigation; Riley remained silent during those preliminaries.
The Ethics Board subpoenaed Riley on June 15, commanding that she come to the hearing and bring any evidence of her connection with any pro-Milton group, such as meeting minutes or records of payment.
On the eve of today’s hearing, Willard and his legal team filed the new lawsuit. The board accepted service at the 10 a.m. meeting, in front of an audience of about 20 media and Riley supporters.
To explain the last-minute filing, Willard said the lawyers had just in the last few days found the case law that their lawsuit rests on.
He denied that he and Riley are dragging their feet. “What’s important is the protection of her constitutional rights,” the lawyer concluded.
Riley, who is running opposed for a seat in the state House of Representatives, will leave the commission sometime this year. The Ethics Board cannot take action against county staff or officers once they’ve left.
Edwards said the six state representatives deserve swift resolution, just like any other complainant. The board, he said, sees one of its obligations as speedy, sound decision-making.
“Commissioner Riley has been an exception to that expeditiousness,” he said.