Ethics board dismisses complaint against Cobb commissioner



The Cobb County Board of Ethics dismissed a complaint filed against Commissioner Jerica Richardson and found there was no specific evidence to support the conflict of interest allegations made against her.

Debra Fisher argued in her complaint that Richardson benefited financially through her nonprofit organization, For Which It Stance, which advocates for local control. Members of the organization defend the Cobb Commission’s move last year to invoke its home rule power, amend its electoral map, and preserve Richardson’s seat on the board. The constitutionality of the county’s maneuver will need to be determined in court through pending litigation.

The ethics board dismissed the complaint during a preliminary hearing Monday.

Fisher’s complaint sought to void Richardson’s votes, which would have then voided the map altogether.

“We, again, did not see any specific evidence or information that anything against our ethics code occurred,” said ethics board member Winter Wheeler.

Fisher said the ethics code prohibits commissioners from voting on county business in which they have a conflict of interest. The fact that the nonprofit Richardson founded takes donations to advocate for home rule power constitutes a financial conflict of interest, she said.

“I believe it is not the duty of any commissioner to benefit financially off of a situation before the board of commissioners in which she is directly, directly affected by,” she said to the ethics board.

Richardson’s attorney, Justin O’Dell, argued at the hearing that Fisher did not meet the burden of proof with “specific, substantiated or credible evidence,” and the board agreed.

O’Dell compared Richardson’s advocacy group to local political parties, which also solicit donations, feature various elected officials, and advocate for issues they support.

“To suggest that a commissioner would not be allowed to be engaged in advocacy or political activity, simply because the outcome of the advocacy or political activity would help them remain in office, would undermine the entirety of the entire political structure that we have in this country,” O’Dell said.

The county ethics code prohibits elected officials from using their positions to “provide any benefits, financial or otherwise, to themselves or to other individuals or to any for-profit organization of which they are a member,” and deliberately excludes nonprofit organizations.

For Which It Stance is a nonprofit organization, not for-profit. Therefore, the code does not prohibit Richardson from voting on the home rule resolution, O’Dell said.

“She has a right as a commissioner to advocate, argue and fight for the people who elected her and what she perceives to be the will of those people,” he said.

The ethics board voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint, leaving the court to determine whether the county’s move to amend its own map under home rule is constitutional and whether Richardson will be allowed to remain in office.

”I am certainly grateful for the outcome of this hearing, and hope that it is clear that my full intention is to support my community, to advocate on its behalf and to educate it on all the intricacies of our system,” Richardson said after the hearing.

When asked whether she has financially benefited through the nonprofit, Richardson said: “I have not.”