Fulton elections board member swayed hiring

Intervention in the hiring process by a Fulton County the elections board member clinched the elections director job for Sam Westmoreland, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

The documents the county just released Thursday shed more light on how a man with little election experience was selected to oversee voting in Georgia’s most populous county.

When a panel of experts first rated candidates for the job, Westmoreland landed at the bottom of the list. Out of nine qualified applicants, he ranked seventh. But then William Riley, a board member and friend of Westmoreland, intervened and pushed for changes that allowed him to win the $105,000-a-year job.

The original scores were tossed out and board members themselves did another round of interviews. This time, Westmoreland ranked first. The board voted him in, choosing a onetime elections board colleague over competitors with years of election experience. Documents show it disregarded its own written hiring plan and failed to check his background or call his last three employers.

Riley said to blame him for giving Westmoreland an advantage is to give him too much credit.

“I can’t pick him,” he said. “It takes three votes to do anything.”

Westmoreland, a real estate lawyer, would go on to oversee a sloppy job of adjusting precinct lines for redistricting, leading to a bungled July primary where 690 voters in Sandy Springs and southeast Atlanta got assigned to the wrong state Senate and state House races.

Then came the personal meltdown. Unbeknownst to board members because no one scrutinized his criminal record, he had failed to comply with sentencing terms from prescription drug-related DUI arrests in 2008 and 2009. A month and a half before a presidential vote, he landed in the Alpharetta jail for failing to perform community service or take a DUI class. Eight days into the 10-day stay jail stint, he resigned.

Attempts to reach Westmoreland over the past two weeks have been unsuccessful, and he did not return calls Friday.

A former elections staffer told the AJC that the board chairman instructed her not to run a background check. The chairman denies that. “If someone had asked me if we should do a background check, the answer is yes — emphatically,” Roderick Edmond said. “If the department was supposed to do that, then the department failed.”

Westmoreland’s short, tumultuous tenure has put the department’s competency in question in the run-up to the November presidential election. A spokesman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office is investigating, said he would consider an outside monitor “should the need arise.”

Public confidence has been shaken, said Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, and that might have been avoided if the board had followed its own processes.

“Any time anyone is hired for a position, they should be qualified, and it should not be because of friendships or politics,” she said.

Riley, a Republican Party appointee to the elections board, strongly denies friendship was his motive, but acknowledged politics played a role.

While he was friends with Westmoreland and had him to his home for dinner on several occasions, he said he also believed he was the best person for the job. He said he had become concerned that the county’s Registration and Elections Department was morphing into an arm of the Democratic Party, and he intervened because he feared the panel’s top picks would be too politically biased.

Although Westmoreland is a solid Democrat and a former head of the county Democratic party, Riley said he had worked with him for years and trusted him to keep politics out of the job. “He was my professional friend more than he was any other kind of friend,” Riley said. “He was best suited for this job, better than any of the other candidates.” Riley, Johns Creek city attorney, is a former Atlanta Municipal Court chief judge.

The AJC previously reported, based on documents obtained through an open records request, that when elections board members rated job candidates, Riley gave Westmoreland the highest possible number of points, 500. No other applicant received a perfect score.

For unclear reasons, records of the earlier panel’s scoring weren’t turned over the AJC until Thursday. Initially, retired Forsyth County elections director Gary Smith, retired Fulton elections director Gloria Champion and Fulton Personnel Director Paris Brown did the scoring.

In that process, Westmoreland didn’t make the list of the five top candidates: attorney and former Fulton County Commissioner Gordon Joyner; former Fulton elections board chairwoman Justine Boyd; former New Mexico Secretary of State Mary Herrera; Oakland County, Mich., elections director Joseph Rozell; and former Knox County, Tenn., elections director Gregory Mackay.

Westmoreland had no experience managing a county voting office, other than the six months he had spent as interim director after the forced resignation of prior director Barry Garner, who had been accused of sexual harassment.

An internal log of the hiring process says Riley “expressed concerns to the panelists about the recruiting process and the political party affiliations of the candidates.” He called an emergency meeting, where board members decided they would interview all nine candidates.

Riley said board members were supposed to be allowed to take part in the scoring, but former administrative coordinator Brigitte Bailey, who kept the log, wasn’t abiding by that. Bailey said she was never told that board members were to be anything but observers.

“I’m not sure any of us trusted this group,” Republican Party elections board appointee Stan Matarazzo said.

An AJC investigation found that if anyone had checked with law firms where Westmoreland had worked, they would have found he falsified parts of his resume and job application, particularly claims that he had supervised large staffs.

Bailey’s log notes that a step in the hiring process — background and reference checks — never got done.

Edmond denies Bailey’s account of him saying, in an informal chat after the board made its choice, that she didn’t need to do a background check. He said it was his understanding that the county personnel department did that, but the personnel director has told the AJC it was the elections board’s responsibility.

The experience has been another bruising for a department with a battered public image. The last time the nation picked a president, problems with Fulton’s handling of the process resulted in a $120,000 penalty, believed to be the largest ever levied by the State Election Board.

Edmond and other board members have vowed that the next time they hire a director, they will thoroughly vet all candidates.

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