Ethics fines list not reliable for individual searches, director says

The director of the state ethics commission said his office's database of $7.7 million in late fees cannot be relied upon to determine whether a candidate or lobbyist actually owes anything.

"As with any data, there may be errors," Stefan Ritter, director of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, said.

Credit: Lois Norder

Credit: Lois Norder

Earlier this week, the AJC's Watchdog Blog broke down the commission's list of fines for lobbyists and political candidates alleged to have not filed their reports on time. Among those was Marla Moore, a longtime state employee who retired last spring as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Moore, who had registered as a lobbyist due to her position, was near the top of the ethics commission's list of late filers with $134,800 in fines, all of which accrued after she retired and stopped filing lobbying reports. Ritter said those fines have since been erased.

Ritter objected to the AJC's reference to fines assessed against individuals on the list, saying the database "should not be depositively relied upon," meaning that just because you are on the commission's late list doesn't indicate guilt. That's not too far off from the claims of lawmakers who are considering giving local officials with a way out of millions in fines owed over a series of years.

House Bill 370, which passed the House last year and awaits action in the Senate, rests of a similar proposition: The ethics commission's records may not reflect reality and therefore officials need not pay their fines unless the commission can prove they did not try to file their campaign reports.

The ethics commission has pushed back on legislative attempts to give such a broad defense to politicians to walk away from their obligations to disclose who funded their campaigns. Ritter cautiously said he is not taking a position on the legislation, but he said his warning that the commission's database is not trustworthy "should have no bearing on amnesty."

"The errors are likely more omission of data, not over inclusion," he said, "though there may be both."

Lawmakers defend the bill by claiming computer problems at the commission kept local officials from successfully filing their reports. Ritter, who was named to head the agency last April following a series of tumultuous years for the commission, said the technical glitches have "long been fixed."

The commission is required by law to publish a list of lobbyists and public officials who have not filed their most recent reports. To meet this requirement, the commission has a searchable list on its website the public can access to determine if a public official or lobbyist has filed.

The list carries a disclaimer that the information "may not be accurate" but specifically places any accuracy problems on mistakes made by filers. Results from searches of the data include an invoice and an link to an online pay site.

All of this is meant to encourage lobbyists and officials to provide the public with timely information on who funds office seekers and how lobbyists try to influence them once they are elected.

Once they register with the state, lobbyists are required to regularly report their spending on public officials, including spending on meals, travel and other gifts. If they fail to do so on time, the ethics commission's computer system automatically lists them as late and assigns a fine. The same is true for candidates for public office, who must file annual financial disclosures and regular reports detailing the money they raise to run for office.

The ethics commission is a relatively small government office and Ritter said the staff is working on managing the late fee data, adding that, "by and large it is accurate."