Cleta Winslow accused of tapping taxpayers for campaign — again

For the fourth time, Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow stands accused of tapping taxpayer money to fund a re-election campaign.

If done intentionally, that’s a misdemeanor under Georgia law. But so far, the city is handling the matter similar to how it did Winslow’s past three violations. The city’s Ethics Board is proposing to fine the longtime Democratic councilwoman $3,000 — which is $1,000 more than she paid the last time the board caught her.

That’s because the councilwoman’s records were such a mess and so many emails had been deleted that the ethics investigator couldn’t find evidence that Winslow clearly meant to mix public money with her campaign.

Winslow has in some way used public office funds to pay campaign expenses in each of her last three bids for office. The last time, in 2013, she paid homeless people to wear her T-shirts and pass out campaign fliers, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Ethics officials confirmed she also donated taxpayer money to a church while campaigning there, dipped into public funds to buy jazz concert tickets for some campaign surveillance and made a city employee into her personal driver.

While Ethics Officer Nina Hickson, who spent nearly two years on the investigation sparked by the AJC report, says she found no “smoking gun” email or other record showing intent, such proof might not be necessary, said Bob Wilson, a former DeKalb County District Attorney.

“Repeating the same conduct multiple times cannot always be explained by oversight,” Wilson said. “There’s a point at which a reasonable person would conclude that these are not inadvertent acts.”

He likened the case to someone repeatedly walking out of a store with items in his pocket.

“It’s hard to come to the conclusion,” Wilson said, “that it’s anything other than a willful act.”

Torry Lewis, who lost to Winslow in the 2013 race for Distict 4, said her ability to use city money to bolster her campaign makes her undefeatable.

“This is really another example of just a slap on the wrist,” Lewis said of the settlement offer. “If we keep allowing this to happen, what’s the use of having an ethics board? What’s the use of having laws?”

Fulton County Solicitor General Carmen Smith, who prosecutes misdemeanors, did not respond to phone or email messages left Friday.

Winslow also did not return messages. She did not attend an Ethics Board hearing Thursday where the board voted to extend the settlement offer, and she has not said whether she will accept the terms. Along with a fine, Winslow would get a public reprimand and have to file quarterly reports on spending.

A 2014 investigation by the AJC found that after Winslow was caught driving drunk in her district, she used public money to bolster her campaign in ways her challenger couldn’t. She paid a political ally thousands of dollars to mow private lots in her district, including the eyesore lot across from her home. She also charged the city hundreds of dollars in gasoline, often filling up twice on the same day or on back-to-back days, or buying enough gas to circle I-285 four times.

Hickson’s investigation found that those repeated fill-ups for $30, $40, sometimes $70 at a time, were Winslow’s way of campaigning while her driver’s license was suspended. A city employee, Marshall Thomas, chauffeured her to meetings and events, according to Hickson’s 17-page case report and other records. Thomas admitted to doubling as a campaign coordinator.

There were no records laying out when Thomas was on the city’s clock as opposed to working for his boss’ campaign, nor did records describe when he was driving her to city events as opposed to campaign events.

Hickson also determined that the councilwoman spent $750 for 22 tickets to the West End Jazz Festival, and among those she invited were two people who she asked to “keep an eye on things” related to her campaign. She has since reimbursed the city $200 for eight of those tickets.

Hickson said she couldn’t track down any of the homeless people interviewed by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News, who Winslow turned into human billboards. They told reporters they made $5 per hour to wear T-shirts emblazoned with Winslow’s name while picking up trash and handing out campaign fliers.

However, Hickson told the AJC that Winslow admitted to paying $240 in wages to homeless people for times when they passed out fliers. And taxpayers paid a $68 bill to print some of those T-shirts, the ethics officer’s report said.

Still, Hickson said, “I don’t know that it rose to the level of a criminal” case.

“There’s a difference between willfulness and negligence,” she said.

The Ethics Board reached an agreement with Winslow over other such violations in 2006, without fining her. Then the board fined her $1,500 in 2010 and $2,000 in 2013. In the last case, she had paid a bus company $390 to shuttle seniors to a campaign event, then blamed the error on an employee.

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