Houston officials missing disclosure reports say oversight system flawed

chwright@macon.comAugust 24, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Want to know if an elected official has personal investments or campaign backers that may have inspired his or her latest decision?

There’s supposed to be a way to find out: state-required personal financial and campaign contribution filings, complete with penalties for failing to file or filing late.

But several officials in Houston County have not kept up with those filings, according to a review by The Telegraph. Some who’ve missed the filings have been fined, and some have not, while others say they have been fined even when they have complied.

“As long as there are people out there that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do and people who want to circumvent the law, it’s going to be problems,” said Holly LaBerge, executive director of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Some Houston officials say the issue is more complicated than that.

How it’s supposed to work

All elected officials in Georgia are required to file annual personal financial disclosure statements, which list investments and property holdings for the officials and their spouses. In addition, officials must file campaign contribution disclosure forms twice a year as long as their campaign accounts remain open.

If an official fails to file, an initial fine of $125 is assessed.

Since 2011, all filings have been sent to the campaign finance commission, the result of a 2010 law that moved disclosure oversight from local offices to the state.

LaBerge said “qualifying officers” at the local level, usually in city clerk offices, are to notify her office when someone is running for a position, as well as when someone wins an election. It’s this information that the state’s automated system starts tracking. That system looks for the right forms for the officials in question and issues fines.

“If a qualifying officer doesn’t file them into the system, we have no way of knowing what documents (candidates are) supposed to be filing,” LaBerge said. “No one’s system can overcome bad information.”

While officials say they are routinely notified that their campaign contributions filings are due, some Houston officials say they don’t receive similar notification about their personal finance disclosure statements. That’s likely because the system hasn’t been notified they won their elections.

Houston County officials say the description of the system is proof it’s broken.

“What we have is a lot of ineptness, and if you dare question it, then” the state balks, said Centerville City Attorney Rebecca Tydings. The state recently reprimanded Centerville’s city clerk when she alerted the state that it continued to fine a councilman who hadn’t been in office for three years.

How it is

Failure to alert the state when local candidates are elected, says LaBerge, explains why there are so many missing personal finance disclosures for Houston County officials and others around the state.

Until three weeks ago, Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen had not filed a personal financial disclosure since he was elected. The three councilmen also elected in 2009 -- Daron Lee, Mike Daley and Paul Shealy -- were also missing some of the same forms. Daley was missing two, Shealy one and Lee two until this summer when, he says, he realized the mistake while filing mayoral campaign paperwork.

LaBerge said the system didn’t know Shaheen and the councilmen had been elected in 2009 because the agency doesn’t actively seek names of candidates or elected officials. It’s the same reason the system didn’t fine them or note Shaheen as a non-filer.

“The qualifying officer was supposed to submit that information,” she said. “Obviously, they didn’t.”

When The Telegraph notified Shaheen he was missing forms, he filed two of the three he was missing. When contacted, he would say only that “my reports are up to date.”

So what about that remaining missing form?

“I cannot tell if he is required to file one for 2010 because there is no qualifying information for him in the system, which means the qualifying officer didn’t enter it, so we don’t know if he was in office in 2011,” LaBerge wrote in an email.

The qualifying officer for Warner Robins at the time of Shaheen’s election has since retired, but City Attorney Jim Elliott said she was quite diligent.

Nonetheless, LaBerge said she has no way to reprimand qualifying officers who don’t give her agency the required information.

“They fall under the Secretary of State’s office,” she said.

The Secretary of State’s office, located just downstairs from the transparency commission, oversees elections. But even though the two offices are tracking the same people, LaBerge said the offices don’t communicate.

“We serve two different functions,” she said.

Jodi Daley, councilman Daley’s wife and treasurer, said the councilman has never received reminders for personal disclosures.

Councilman Mike Brashear was missing both forms due since he was elected in 2011. He was fined for the form due this year but not the one from last year.

He said the system isn’t user-friendly, and it’s hard to keep up. He has now filed the 2012 form.

“I take full credit and responsibility,” he said.

Council members Mike Davis and Carolyn Robbins, also elected in 2011, were most up to date on their filings in Warner Robins. Davis and Robbins have been fined for late filings, though Davis showed The Telegraph an email that shows his form in question was submitted on time.

Both said their email accounts are bombarded with reminders.

That’s because the state agency’s system sends out four reminders approaching each filing due date to those who are entered correctly into the system. Still, more than half of those emails are never opened, LaBerge said.

“I’ll let you know, but if you don’t open it, I can’t come to your house, file your report, mow your grass and cook your dinner for you,” LaBerge said.

Of Houston County’s governing bodies, Centerville seems to have the worst track record for filing personal financial disclosures based on the state’s database. But only two of the five elected officials have been fined, implying the system may not have known about the others elected.

“How in the (world) did they think that Centerville was conducting business all of these years, and they’re only showing two people of a five-person council in elected office?” Tydings said.

Mayor John Harley said he was able to prove to the state that he had filed a disclosure the state’s system said was missing. He is still missing one of three filings

Tydings, City Administrator Patrick Eidson and City Clerk Krista Bedingfield said while frustrated with the oversight, The Telegraph’s review shows the elected officials in their city must check on their individual filings.

Houston County commissioners have the best track record, with all the commissioners filing the required documents over the past three years.

LaBerge said complications also are caused when an elected official doesn’t file the exact form needed. Some forms request identical information but are titled differently. The system will fine an official if this happens. The official must contact the state to fix the problem.

But Jodi Daley, Lee, Robbins and Centerville officials said getting the agency on the phone isn’t easy.

“They really need to work on their customer service,” Jodi Daley said.

Who’s to blame?

The problem is an understaffed and underfunded agency, said William Perry of Common Cause Georgia. Common Cause Georgia is a government transparency lobbying group.

“Unfortunately, a lot of things fall through the cracks,” he said.

LaBerge denied that but acknowledged her staff of 11 must handle filings for 881 cities and 159 counties.

Perry said the change in 2010 that sent local filings to the capital was “a good faith effort” to digitize filings and make it easier for anyone in the state to access all elected officials’ disclosures instead of going to individual city halls.

But “the change in law really took away a lot of transparency for us,” Perry said, because the new system hasn’t worked.

So, in 2014, filings are going back to the local level.

Ultimately, though, the responsibility to make sure filings are up to date is on the elected officials, Perry said.

“Even though a local agency may have dropped the ball, it’s still his (the elected official’s) responsibility,” Perry said. “It’d be like me not paying a parking ticket because ... it didn’t get put into the system.”

Warner Robins council members agree.

Still, Jodi Daley said, “it’s not that simple” to understand what is supposed to be done and when.

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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