Another fine mess for the Georgia ethics commission

Last April, Marla Moore took her well-earned retirement from state service.

Moore was director of the Administrative Office of the Courts where she was praised for her "longstanding emphasis on access and fairness and removing bias toward court participants."

After more than three decades of such service, the state has a going away present: $134,800 in fines for failing to file lobbying reports for the eight months after her retirement.

“What?” Moore said when she heard the figure. “If they try to collect that I’m getting a lawyer.”

She probably knows a few.

Moore's eye-popping bill is a piece of more than $7.7 million in outstanding fees levied against lobbyists and politicians by the state ethics. The long list of fines is the result of years of dysfunction in the ethics commission and questionable ethics laws passed in the General Assembly.

Lawmakers appear ready to take another stab at sorting out the millions politicians across the state owe in late fees and penalties. Likely they will do that by passing a bill making it even harder for the ethics commission to collect the fines owed by local candidates for school boards and city council seats across the state by requiring the commission to prove filers weren't the victim of computer error.

Commission officials downplay the complaints against the office's creaky computer system. Problems were limited and have since been fixed. But the full list of delinquent filers begs the question: Should the state just start over? Maybe with laws that can be enforced?

Credit: Chris Joyner

Credit: Chris Joyner

Most of the fees – about $4.4 million, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – are owed by lobbyists who are required to submit periodic reports of their spending on public officials.

These are important reports meant to provide transparency on the meals, trips, flowers and other baubles lobbyists give to officials. The reports are a measure of how much influence lobbyists have over politicians.

But in reality only a fraction of registered lobbyists do this kind of spending. The rest turn in reports filled with zeros. Under state law, failing to file those zero-filled reports on time has extreme consequences.

Lobbyists filing a report a few days late are hit with a $275 penalty. But if they file it a week late, the fine jumps to $1,000 plus the original $275. After three weeks, the penalty climbs to $10,000 plus the other fines for a total of $11,275.

And that’s per report. So if a lobbyist is registered to lobby at the state and local levels and as a state vendor, the penalty is multiplied by three.

That’s what happened to former State Rep. Stephanie Benfield, now director of sustainability with the Atlanta city government. According to commission records, Benfield owes $34,100 in late fees from when she registered to lobby as executive director of the environmental law firm Greenlaw. Records show Benfield did not file her June 2015 report until Sept. 19, earning her an $11,275 fine for filing more than three weeks late, despite the fact that she had no reportable spending that month.

Because she was registered to lobby at three different levels the penalty was tripled.

Unsurprisingly, late fees do not escalate the same way for the politicians who wrote the law. Although more candidates are on the ethics commission’s delinquent list than lobbyists, they owe less money. Former Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts tops the politician list with a bill of $2,375 for allegedly failing to file campaign finance disclosures for multiple campaign accounts throughout much of 2013.

The commission is loathe to walk away from its unpaid fines. For one thing, the office, with an annual budget of just $2.6 million, can keep a portion of any fees its collects. For another, commissioners – and good government groups – also don’t want to give a free ride to politicians or lobbyists who just chose not to follow the law.

But even if the Legislature doesn’t forgive the fines, collecting is tough.

First, there are 7,329 unpaid fines on the commission’s ledger. That a big elephant for a small office to eat.

Second, while some lobbyists have huge tabs, most of the accounts are small. The median penalty is $125, which means putting too much effort into hunting down these offenders does not make much economic sense.

For more on the commission's late fees and the Legislature's efforts to forgive most of them, see The AJC's coverage here.