Fulton County Election Board members expressed concerns on Thursday about “electioneering” having occurred inside the home of a high-ranking manager at the county’s election department and ordered the department’s staff to consider new policies to prevent similar situations.
The board's action followed revelations that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' campaign paid more than $3,600 to a consulting company registered to Ralph Jones Sr., registration chief of the election department.
Ralph Jones Jr., who served as social media communications director for the Bottoms campaign, is listed as the company’s “incorporator.”
The filings have raised concerns about what experts said was an alarming lack of separation between a top election employee and an active political campaign.
Fulton County Commissioners on Wednesday had urged Elections Director Rick Barron to take action against Jones Sr., but Barron and election board members said circumstances didn't warrant discipline.
At Thursday’s meeting, Barron said that Ralph Jones Sr. had not violated any oath or county policy because his son had made him the registered agent of the company without telling him.
“What is the defense of the unknowing in such a situation?” Barron asked.
Barron called it an “an example were the reporters could have dug deeper.”
Barron said he made his determinations based on discussions with Jones Sr. and on his own examination of the registration process with the Secretary of State.
“Someone other than the owner must be listed as the registered agent,” Barron said.
But a spokeswoman for the Georgia Secretary of State disagreed. “There is no such limitation,” said Candice Broce.
Barron also said that he had confirmed with the Secretary of State's office that Jones Sr. and his son's now dissolved political consulting business weren't part of an investigation into potential irregularities in the Dec. 5 runoff between Bottoms and Mary Norwood — a contest decided by less than 900 votes.
Broce declined to comment on whether the matter was under review, citing the ongoing the investigation.
Earlier this week, Jones Sr. declined an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. A spokeswoman said he had left the office when the AJC made a second request for an interview on Thursday.
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.
Board Member Vernetta Nuriddin said she knew Jones Sr. both professionally and personally and she believed he had told the truth. But she had issues with the business having listed Jones Sr.’s home for its address.
“It’s not for me to decide whether he knew or not,” Nurriddin said. “But for me to be a representative of the electorate, it is for me to say: ‘Hey, there’s smoke here, and we have a right to know if electioneering is going on in your top officials’ homes.”
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Barron said he had spoken to the department’s lawyers about strengthening conflict of interest policies.
“Whether in this instance anything that we thought of might have helped, is another matter,” Barron said. “He was unknowing in this.”
Barron insisted that Jones Jr. did not live with his father when he ran the political consulting business.
In a statement on Monday, Jones Jr. said his father: “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.”
On Thursday in another statement, Jones Jr said: “We shared a residence during my childhood, but my father and I did not reside in the same house at the time of incorporation, nor at any time during my operation of RJ Mays Consulting.”
The story so far:
Monday: Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution report that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms campaign paid a consulting business registered to the Fulton County Election Department's Registration Chief
Wednesday: Fulton County Commissioners urged the election board to take action.
Friday: Board declines to take action against the employee, says he didn't know that his son had made him the registered agent for the business.