Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign paid a consulting firm registered to a senior official in the Fulton County elections department during last year’s runoff election.
According to records obtained by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the campaign paid more than $3,600 to RJ Mays Consulting, whose registered agent is Ralph Jones Sr., registration chief of the county’s election department.
The filings raise questions about potential conflicts of interest and what experts called an alarming lack of separation between a top election employee and active political campaign.
Jones Sr. oversees the elections department’s Registration Division which maintains master voter lists, purges criminal and deceased voters from the polls, verifies petitions and mails absentee ballots.
Registered agents serve as a corporation’s legal point of contact for official notices, and in documents filed with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office the address of a home owned by Jones Sr. was provided as the address for RJ Mays.
The records list Jones’ son, Ralph Jones Jr., who served as social media communications director for the Bottoms campaign, as the company’s “incorporator.”
“As the registered agent for my company, my father’s only role was to be a third-party designee who could accept documents, notices, forms and other mailings on my behalf,” Ralph Jones Jr. said in an email. “He had absolutely no financial stake in my company; and he did not have a role in the daily operations. We merely lived in the same house.”
The records have surfaced as the Secretary of State’s office conducts a forensic review of the Dec. 5 runoff election between Bottoms and Mary Norwood, a contest decided by 821 votes. The probe involves irregularities related to absentee ballots, which fall under Jones Sr. responsibilities.
“It’s a really bad look, let’s at least start with that,” said Caren Morrison, a former federal prosecutor who is a law professor at Georgia State University. “I mean, it’s about the most obviously stupid thing you could possibly do. It’s almost like saying, having a big arrow going, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m doing something corrupt. Check it out.”
In a statement on Monday, a Bottoms’ spokesperson said that Jones Jr. “was one of many young people we were fortunate to have engaged with our campaign. His hard work and long hours were greatly appreciated; and, as our public campaign disclosures make clear, he was paid for his expertise accordingly.”
The statement did not directly address questions about the appropriateness of paying a company whose agent had a significant role in overseeing the election.
County: No oath violated
Jones Jr. was hired in Bottoms’ communications office after she was elected. He now works in the Watershed Department, according to payroll records.
The Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections said on Monday that Jones Sr. “has stated that he was not involved in the company’s operation,” according to a statement.
“The department has determined that Ralph Jones, Sr. has not violated his oath or any County policy with respect to his election duties.”
County officials did not disclose how they made that determination.
“In my opinion, if Ralph Jones, Sr. at any point in time was aware that RJ Mays Consulting, Inc. was engaged in the business of campaign consulting for elections taking place in Fulton County, he either should not have taken any legal role in relation to that corporation (including providing his home address as its address for receiving official notices and service of process for lawsuits) or resigned from his position with the Board of Elections,” said Clark D. Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia State University in an email. “Public confidence in the integrity of the election process is at stake.”
After Norwood narrowly lost the runoff to Bottoms, she initially sought a recount and urged voters to report “administrative problems and voter intimidation.”
She conceded in late December.
The Secretary of State’s office in May announced it had launched an investigation into potential election irregularities after several people complained about not being able to vote absentee in the runoff election.
Last month, the AJC reported that an Atlanta City Hall staffer claimed her supervisor ordered her to print and deliver absentee ballots to an advocacy group’s staffer during work hours, according to a broader sexual harassment complaint filed by the employee. Bottoms through a spokesman said that the accusations are false.
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is in a July 24 runoff for the GOP nomination for governor, declined to comment on whether Jones Sr.’s involvement in the consulting firm had become part of the investigation.
Norwood said in an email on Monday said the new information was troubling.
“The authorities at every level: local, state, and federal need to conduct an in-depth investigation and report their findings back to all Atlantans,” Norwood said.