Why we know so little about what’s behind the Buckhead City Committee

Buckhead City Committee supporters, including CEO Bill White (right), as well as some state senators and local residents, gather for a press conference at Loudermilk Park on Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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Buckhead City Committee supporters, including CEO Bill White (right), as well as some state senators and local residents, gather for a press conference at Loudermilk Park on Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The committee pushing for the formation of “Buckhead City” has been active for over a year now, aggressively fundraising with a goal of amassing over seven figures by the end of this year in the hopes of splintering away one of Atlanta’s wealthiest communities.

But as the General Assembly begins its legislative session for the year and considers bills that would allow residents to vote on secession, the public is shielded from the full picture of who is financing the group and what they’re spending money on.

That’s because state and federal law allows nonprofit groups like the Buckhead City Committee to avoid disclosing details on its finances — unlike candidates running for public office. Cityhood committees, and groups that oppose them, are also not required by statute to hold public meetings, disclose how decisions are made or publish their bylaws.

As a result, the pro-cityhood committee in Buckhead, which said last year it had already raised over half a million dollars, has kept its donor list anonymous. It also hasn’t released its bylaws, board of directors or details about fundraising — who is giving and how it’s being spent. If a ballot referendum on Buckhead cityhood is approved by the legislature, the group would have to file some campaign finance reports later this year, though the requirements are less strict than those candidates have to follow.

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William Perry, the former executive director of Common Cause Georgia who now runs the group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said he thinks nonprofits on both sides of an issue should be required to disclose more information about their organizations. Particularly when it comes to fundraising.

Information about how a cause raises and spends money can provide the public with valuable information about where they are seeking support, what special interests are behind them and what their motivations are, transparency advocates say.

“Unfortunately, Georgia law is such that until you start advocating for something specifically on the ballot ... there’s no disclosure for it,” Perry said. “It all makes it quite the challenge for those who are wanting to find out the pros and cons.”

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An aerial photo shows some of the upscale homes in Buckhead. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

An aerial photo shows some of the upscale homes in Buckhead. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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An aerial photo shows some of the upscale homes in Buckhead. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The setup isn’t unique to Buckhead.

Groups looking to form new cities in Georgia often register as private nonprofits — a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4).

The Buckhead City Committee, formerly known as the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, is registered as a 501(c)(4), also known by the IRS as a tax-exempt “social welfare organization.” These groups are allowed to advocate and lobby for specific political causes, unlike nonprofits such as churches.

A nonprofit is allowed to pay staff, but “its earnings are not supposed to unfairly benefit one individual,” said Michael Cross, an attorney who specializes in business and nonprofit law based in Alpharetta.

Under tax law, the Buckhead City Committee will only have to disclose details about their total revenue and spending in yearly IRS filings, which also include details on their leadership and how they are compensated. According to IRS records, the group last filed a notice indicating it had less than $50,000 immediately after it was formed in 2020.

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It’s not uncommon for Georgia cityhood movements to keep their financial details behind closed doors.

“We never published a donor list, per se. And there was no requirement to do so, or we would have,” said Oliver Porter, who helped establish the city of Sandy Springs in 2005 and is advising the Buckhead cityhood group. Some people just might not personally want their donation to be made public.”

The same rules apply to groups that oppose Buckhead cityhood, like the Committee for a United Atlanta, which is also registered as a 501(c)(4). That group published a list of over 450 of their supporters on its website, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it raised just under $340,000 before the new year. Committee co-chair Edward Lindsey, a former state representative, told lawmakers during a meeting Wednesday that the group asks their donors to “allow us to put their name on our list.”

The anti-cityhood group said in a statement that it “is committed to transparency and will be as open and direct as possible with the public.”

The nonprofits on both sides of the issue are required to have a board of directors. PwC principal Patrick Warren holds the formal offices of president, treasurer and secretary for the Committee for a United Atlanta, while the group’s website states Linda Klein and Lindsey also serve as co-chairs. The group shared its bylaws with the AJC, outlining its organization.

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The website for the Buckhead City Committee, meanwhile, lists Bill White, who has become the de facto leader and spokesman for the movement, as its CEO and chairman. Sam Lenaeus, a local real estate agent, is the president. Leila Laniado, a resident who has been with the group since its formation, is secretary.

The site also lists Christian Zimm, a former Buckhead Young Republicans leader, as vice president of communications and social media, and Angelic Moore as vice president of government relations. Moore runs a government consulting company and was Gov. Brian Kemp’s deputy finance director for his 2018 campaign.

The AJC asked the Buckhead City Committee for details about its bylaws, its expenses, whether any of its leaders are being paid and the status of its latest IRS filing. (White said last year he is getting no money for his work.)

The group responded with a two-sentence statement: “The Buckhead City Committee files all required federal and state paperwork. As always, we remain extremely grateful to our volunteers, donors and a growing list of local businesses for their support.”

In a recent fundraising email, the group said 75 local businesses have signed on to the new “Buckhead City Business Council;” the committee has not provided the names of those businesses.

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The Buckhead Village shopping area. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Buckhead Village shopping area. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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The Buckhead Village shopping area. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The rules governing fundraising and transparency would change if the Georgia General Assembly were to approve Republican-backed bills this spring to put the question of cityhood on the ballot for Buckhead voters this November.

Under state law, groups that spend over $500 advocating for or against the passage of a ballot referendum have to file campaign contribution reports to the state’s ethics commission. For example, if pro-cityhood forces run a campaign urging residents to vote yes on cityhood, the group would have to file a report listing their contributions and expenditures.

But the public wouldn’t get to see that report for months. The only pre-election filing deadline is 15 days before voters head to the polls.

And even then, the financials can be murky. The existing nonprofits are allowed to donate a lump sum to the ballot committees, without itemizing where the money originated. Unlike individual candidates, ballot committees in Georgia can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and businesses, according to the state ethics commission.

Candidates running for office have to file public reports every few months, listing every expense and every contribution over $100, with donations from residents and businesses capped.

“It’s unfortunate that they don’t apply the same standards as candidates,” Perry said of ballot committees. “A lot of this does get to happen in the dark.”

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