Most of 13 lawmakers flagged for ethics violations remedy disclosures

Last month the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission announced campaign disclosure complaints against 13 state lawmakers. The commission is shown at a hearing earlier this year. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The state ethics commission announced at a Sept. 26 meeting it had filed complaints against 13 state lawmakers who’d run afoul of campaign finance laws, causing some to express public embarrassment.

The majority of those officials turned in their missing campaign disclosure reports since then, or added new financial information to already filed reports.

In some instances, lawmakers turned in documents flagged in a state audit by the time the complaints were announced at the September meeting by David Emadi, executive secretary for the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Lawmakers named in the ethics complaints blamed their lack of compliance on forgetfulness, or a clerical mistake while filing a report, or health issues. Several lawmakers said the commission’s online interface gave them trouble and Emadi said that a change was recently made to the filing process that should fix that issue.

In some cases when lawmakers missed multiple filing deadlines, it appears to be negligence. One lawmaker appears to still face a more serious campaign violation of accepting campaign donations during the legislative session, which is illegal.

Legislators are required to submit disclosure reports listing any contributions or expenses of at least $100.

Rep. Winfred Dukes

One legislator says he isn’t likely to get his reports in order until mid-November. Rep. Winfred Dukes is past due filing reports and needs to update two others.

Dukes says that he was unaware that he had not filed four reports in 2018 and 2019 until he was contacted by the Georgia Recorder the day the complaints were released.

The Albany Democrat said he thought someone in his office turned in the reports for him.

“We have more people on it, we’ve brought in an accountant to make sure they get it in compliance,” said Dukes, who acknowledged that it’s his responsibility to make sure these and future reports are turned in on time.

Sen. Sheikh Rahman, a Lawrenceville Democrat, blames his lack of computer expertise for the complaint that says he failed to list contributions on two reports.

He says he’s now turned in the updated forms within the last couple of weeks and submitted bank records to the commission as proof.

Those reports, however, were not listed Friday on the state ethics website, and the ethics commission said the only reports they had were already online.

One lawmaker named at the September meeting as a campaign law violator is dealing with significant health issues and that could help explain missing reports and financial information in a couple of instances.

Rep. Mickey Stephens was hospitalized earlier this year after having blood clots that eventually caused his leg to be amputated.

Extenuating circumstances are considered by the commission when handling cases, said Robert Lane, executive deputy secretary for the ethics commission, previously known as the State Ethics Commission.

Preliminary hearings for some of the cases are set for the ethics commission’s Dec. 4 hearing, where some could be quickly resolved through consent orders, Lane said.

The commission usually gives $250 to $650 in penalties if a report is filed late.

“It really depends on how cooperative the respondent is,” Lane said. “Generally, the more responsive they are, the more leniency that the commission will show.”

Some public officials say an online function caused some of their problems.

Rep. Dexter Sharper

Rep. Dexter Sharper said he meant to show that he had no new donations or expenses to report when he hit what he called the “zero button” in the state’s electronic reporting system. But then he mistakenly zeroed out his previous balance instead of automatically transferring the information over to the new report, as he intended.

Sharper was at first mystified by the complaint against him, leading him to hand write a response saying he didn’t raise money for the period in question and his status as a member of the minority party means he is not a target for donors.

 “I take full responsibility for the oversight made by me or my staff,” he wrote in a letter to the ethics commission.

Sharper isn’t the only lawmaker who says they were tripped up by the “zero button” and it is now disabled for most accounts. The online function was intended for local officials who have not used that system since 2014, Lane wrote in an email.

“The fact it keeps a few state officials from improperly selecting it is just an added benefit,” he said.

Rep. Colton Moore

Colton Moore, a Trenton Republican, says he deliberately left off contributions and expenses from a Jan. 31 so he could meet the deadline with the intent to fill in the blanks later. He said was advised by some colleagues that he could amend the report with the right information later.  

He also says that he did not receive any donations or spend any money on another disputed report for June 30. However, if the complaint is referencing him not listing previously reported money then, “If I failed to type in $139 for expenses, I guess I’m pretty unethical,” Moore said.

Other legislators filed new reports in response to the ethics complaints announced in September:

  • Sen. David Lucas of Macon, has since filed five disclosure reports for disclosure periods from Sept. 2018 to June 30. He’s also been charged with accepting a donation during the last legislative session, which is illegal and is an infraction that remains unresolved. Lucas has said he received the $500 check from Waste Management before the legislature gaveled into session but accidentally typed in Jan. 18 when reporting it.
  • Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, a Norcross Democrat, said her June 30 report got lost in the confusion as she launched her campaign for the 7th Congressional District. She filed her state disclosure report on Sept. 5.
  • Rep. Pat Gardner, an Atlanta Democrat, turned in four disclosure reports listed in the complaint.
  • Rep. Steven Sainz, a Woodbine Republican, filed an updated June 2018 report on Sept. 29 that now lists $2,000 in donations and $2,760 in expenses. He also faces complaints that he filed two 2018 reports late.
  • Sen. Horacena Tate, an Atlanta Democrat, filed her June 30 period report on Sept. 8. She also turned in one 2018 report late.
  • James Burchett, a Waycross Republican, submitted forms for the April and May reporting periods on Sept. 5.
  • Vernon Jones, a Lithonia Democrat, submitted his report that was due Jan. 31, 2019, on Sept. 4.

Reporter Jill Nolin contributed to this report.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.