Sen. Bill Cowsert (SD 46): Five years of tax liens, late payments
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William Stone Cowsert (R-Athens)
District 46 (Clarke, Oconee & Walton counties)
Cowsert has had trouble paying property taxes on time for his 89 acres of lakefront property in Elbert County. Five times since 2008, he’s been late — once by nearly two years — in taking care of taxes and penalties amounting to more than $18,000.
This morning, the Elbert County tax commissioner’s website showed unpaid bills for $3,302 and $86.74 that were due in December 2015. A buyer for the property was to have paid the taxes, Cowsert said, until the sale fell through.
The senator said he paid the bills today.
In 2002, voters amended the Georgia Constitution to bar candidates who haven’t paid their taxes from holding elective office. But the requirement can’t be enforced if the amount is disputed or is being paid in installments.
Elbert County placed liens on Cowsert’s property in 2009, 2010 and 2014 for unpaid property taxes, penalties and interest. Cowsert told Atlanta Unfiltered in 2014 that he had paid the previous year’s bill but learned later that the lien remained on the books because his payment did not include the late fee. He had already paid off the other liens.
No lien was filed for Cowsert’s 2012 taxes, but the tax commissioner’s website shows they were not paid in full until November 2014.
Cowsert and other leaders of the Senate Republican Caucus drew fire in 2012 for transferring $140,000 in donations to a political action committee to help incumbents get re-elected.
The newly created Republican Senate Caucus Promotion PAC spent the money on political mailers promoting eight incumbents facing primary challenges. Had the caucus spent money directly on those campaigns, contribution limits would have capped the effort at $2,500 each, or a total of $20,000.
Under Georgia law, candidates may not coordinate their campaigns with the efforts of independent committees. Critics contended the PAC’s independence was artificial at best, since the caucus gave it the message, the money and the names of members to spend it on.
In a July 2012 email to Republican senators, Cowsert and two colleagues defended the decision:
We gave [consultant Michael Luethy] a block grant of funding to his independent committee and trusted him to maximize those dollars to help our incumbents. We provided him with of legislative accomplishments from the past 2 years and the names of Caucus members facing primary opposition. We have had no further contact with him as this is an independent group and we are not allowed to coordinate efforts with him. He has not coordinated with any Senator or campaign committees in any way on this project. … This is completely legal and does not violate any finance campaign laws.
Seven of the eight challenged senators won their primaries; the mailings may well have made the difference for Cecil Staton and Jack Murphy, who each won re-election by wafer-thin margins.
In 2010, Cowsert was one of three Senate leaders who showered freshmen with nearly $45,000 in campaign donations on the night before the general election. The gifts came just days before the Nov. 5 caucus vote that shifted much of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s power to Cowsert and allies Chip Rogers and Tommie Williams. Cowsert alone handed out 11 checks for $20,500 at a Nov. 1 dinner for the freshmen.
- Ran second with 44% in a 2004 House race, losing to Democrat Jane Kidd, daughter of ex-Gov. Ernest Vandiver.
- Defeated Kidd in 2006, 56% to 44%, when both ran for the state Senate.
- Re-elected with 58% in 2008 and with no opposition since then.
- Won his 2016 Republican primary, 76-24%.
- Elected secretary of the Senate Republican Caucus in November 2008.
- Ran second to Sen. David Shafer in a 2012 caucus vote for Senate president pro tem.
- Elected Senate majority leader in November 2014.
- Appropriations (2007 – present)
- Finance (ex-officio, 2015 – present)
- Health & Human Services (2015 – present)
- Judiciary (2007 – present)
- Reapportionment (2007 – 2012, 2015 – present; chair, 2010)
- Regulated Industries & Utilities (2015 – present)
- Rules (ex-officio, 2015 – present)
- Transportation (ex-officio, 2017 – )
- Administrative Affairs (2015 – 2016)
- Assignments (2011 – 2012, 2015 – 2016)
- Higher Education (2007 – 2014; chair, 2013 – 2014)
- Natural Resources & the Environment (2009 – 2014)
- Special Judiciary (2007 – 2010)
- Attorney, Cowsert & Avery LLC
Business ownership interests
- Partner, Cowsert & Avery LLP, law firm.
- President, Wildcat Investments LLC.
- Cowsert’s wife, Amy, owns SoBoHo Beads Inc., which makes and sells jewelry.
Other fiduciary positions
- Director, Faithful Servant Charitable Foundation.
Real estate holdings
- Personal residence valued at $569,000 in Athens.
- 89 acres of undeveloped lakefront property valued at $270,000 in Elbert County.
- Partial ownership of home valued at $367,000 on Lake Hartwell in Stephens County.
- Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
- Check Point Software
- Cisco Systems Inc.
- Corning Inc.
- Hewlett Packard Co.
- Intel Corp.
- Microsoft Corp.
- Oracle Corp.
- Orderite Inc.
Payments from state agencies
- None disclosed.
Friends and Family
- Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp, who held the same Senate seat, is Cowsert’s brother-in-law.
- Cowsert’s father-in-law, Bob Argo, served 10 years (1977-86) in the House representing Athens.
- Cowsert co-chaired Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign in Georgia.
Bill Cowsert thought he had filed all of his financial disclosures on time in 2014. Three of the campaign’s filings, though, weren’t posted online until after we asked him about them in November; his personal financial disclosure didn’t show up until January 2015 — six months late. For each late filing, Cowsert racked up a $125 fee, which he said he would pay under protest pending a closer look into the timeliness of his filings.
Cowsert has raised more than $1.09 million in political donations. The breakdown by election cycle:
- 2004: $94,788
- 2005-06: $221,559
- 2007-08: $187,127
- 2009-10: $72,950
- 2011-12: $136,885
- 2013-14: $34,500
- 2015-16: $349,950
- Reported cash on hand (Oct. 2016): $257,349
- $107,940 Ex-Sen. Eric Johnson & other Republican lawmakers
- $36,600 Georgia Trial Lawyers Association & leadership
- $12,500 Georgia Dental Association
- $12,000 Georgia Power Co. / Atlanta Gas Light
- $11,250 Medical Association of Georgia
- $11,000 State Farm Insurance
- $10,300 Altria / Philip Morris USA
- $10,150 Landmark Properties / Landmark Collegiate Development LLC
- $10,000 Georgia Association of Realtors
- $10,000 Select Management Resources LLC, title pawn lender
- $9,100 AT&T
- $9,000 General Electric Co.
- $8,750 Georgia Apartment Association
- $8,400 Koch Industries / Georgia-Pacific / Colonial Pipeline
- $8,200 Georgia Pharmacy Association
- $8,000 Centene Management Co.
- $7,950 TitleMax, title-pawn lender
- $7,750 Georgia Hospital Association
- $7,350 Coca-Cola & the Georgia Beverage Association
- $7,150 Troutman Sanders LLP
- $6,900 Georgia Oilmen’s Association
- $6,550 Troutman Sanders LLP, lobbying firm
- $6,500 BlueCross BlueShield of Georgia/Amerigroup
- $6,300 Workplace Injury Network
- $6,250 Georgia Affordable Housing Coalition & its donors
- $6,250 Georgia Health Care Association
- $6,000 Caterpillar Inc., construction equipment
- $6,000 Home Builders Association of Georgia
- $6,000 MAG Mutual Insurance Co.
- $5,800 Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley, Athens law firm
- $5,600 Georgia Affordable Housing Coalition
- $5,600 Georgia Society of Anesthesiologists
- $5,501 Georgia Automobile Dealers Association
- $5,500 Georgia Emergency Medicine PAC
- $5,500 Donald Leebern & family, liquor distributor
- $5,350 Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association
- $5,250 Anheuser-Busch Companies
- $5,250 Community Loans of America Inc.
- $5,250 TitleMax, title-pawn lender
- $5,000 Georgia Highway Contractors Association
- $5,000 Georgia Optometric Association
- $5,000 Hospital Corporation of America
- $5,000 James & Lynn Matthews, Atlanta, Ga., attorneys
- $5,000 United Parcel Service
- $4,750 AFLAC
- $4,750 John Deere PAC
- $4,500 Associated General Contractors of Georgia
- Georgia Electric Membership Corp.
- $4,500 Wealth Management Group LLC, investment advisors
- $4,250 Georgia Chamber of Commerce
- $4,100 Community Bankers of Georgia
- Cowsert’s campaign paid $3,175 in credit card bills for meals, lodging and travel to attend the 2010 and 2011 meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures without specifying the end recipients of the payments, as required by state campaign finance rules.
Candidates may give campaign funds to other candidates, a practice that some advocates believe provides a legal means to circumvent contribution limits. A 2003 bill to ban such transfers altogether passed in the Senate but died in the House. Cowsert’s campaign made these donations:
- 2007-08: $7,800
- 2009-10: $43,603
- 2011-12: $49,050
- 2013-14: $21,100
- 2015-16: $20,300
Lobbyists have reported paying for meals and other gifts for Cowsert valued at more than $25,000 since 2006. The big spenders: University System of Georgia ($5,083), AT&T ($1,559), Georgia Chamber of Commerce($1,153), Georgia Power Co. ($1,037).
- 2006: $559
- 2007: $2,204
- 2008: $3,142
- 2009: $3,195
- 2010: $6,960
- 2011: $4,096
- 2012: $3,612
- 2013: $251
- 2014: $775
- 2015: $528
- 2016: $14 through Feb. 29
Committee days & travel expenses
When out of session, legislators may collect $173 per day plus mileage for committee meetings or other official business. Those living within 50 miles of the Capitol are taxed on these payments, originally intended to cover out-of-town members’ food and lodging.
- 2007: $7,454 (34 days)
- 2008: $5,694 (26 days)
- 2009: $11,810 (52 days)
- 2010: $14,890 (66 days) #6 in Senate
- 2011: $12,406 (54 days)
- 2012: $7,228 (32 days)
- 2013: $3,028 (15 days)
- 2014: $2,577 (12 days)
- 2015: $10,554 (48 days)
Updated Jan. 10, 2017