Fine forgiveness bill passes Senate Ethics Committee

A Senate bill that would provide local politicians with a pathway out of ethics fines passed its first major hurdle Monday, but the bill is not quite the “get-out-of-jail-free” card it once was.

Senate Bill 127 gives local officials on the state ethics commission’s late-filer list a “rebuttable presumption” that they tried to file their required reports of campaign donations and personal financial disclosures but were foiled by the commission’s faulty computer system and history of mismanagement.

The Senate Ethics Committee unanimously passed the legislation based largely on a belief that some officials were victimized by computer servers that routinely failed as thousands of politicians tried to meet filing deadlines. But Chairman Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, said he did not know how many officials the bill would affect.

“I would say between dozens and 100, but that’s a guesstimate,” he said.

Among those on the commission’s late-filer list is Larry Savage, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for a Cobb County Commission seat in 2012 and ended his campaign with $500 in fines from the ethics commission for filing several disclosures late. Savage said he had no intention of paying the fines.

“If I live a million years I will NEVER pay up,” he said in an email to the AJC.

Savage said he spent hours trying to file his reports and could get no help from the ethics commission.

“Messages transmitted via the web site were not answers. Repeated phone calls to the agency were reliably connected to recorded message saying that the ‘mailbox is full,’” he said. “In short, not only was help not available, no human contact was even possible.”

According to ethics commission officials, the total late fees owed to the state is somewhere between $2.5 million and $3 million. The fines go back a number of years and the statute of limitations for late filing is between two and four years, depending on the office holder, so it is unclear how much of that could be collected.

Initially, the bill had required the ethics commission to prove that a local official had “knowingly and willfully refused to file the required report.” In a meeting by the committee last week, Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, a lawyer, said that was an “almost impossible standard” of proof for the state to meet.

The version passed by the committee Monday lowered the standard of proof to a “preponderance of the evidence.”

In last week’s meeting, ethics commission attorney Robert Lane argued against the bill saying officials already could appeal late fees before a judge where the commission would have to prove their case.

“You aren’t shifting the burden (of proof) on us,” Lane said. “We already have it.”

If the bill passes, some local officials who paid the fines in 2014 could ask for their money back.

The legislation spawned from a dispute begun Oct. 10 when the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) sent an email to thousands of elected officials across the state saying the ethics commission was attempting to collect outstanding fines and warning of huge increases in the fines if officials did not take action immediately.

Within an hour after the GMA email went out, ethics commission attorney Bethany Whetzel sent GMA Director of Consulting Services Pam Helton a message complaining the commission had been “bombarded by phone calls and emails from local filers this morning/afternoon.”

GMA and ethics commission officials negotiated for weeks on language for a follow up letter to officials, but were unable to agree on wording. Commission Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said the initial GMA email resulted in 423 requests from local officials for audits of their accounts, which she said has slowed the work of the commission.

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