The state ethics commission has asked former Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards to account for nearly $80,000 that disappeared from his campaign finance reports in 2010.
Citing a recent investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission has opened its own inquiry into Edwards’ campaign finances. In a July 24 letter to Edwards obtained by the newspaper, the commission cites several possible violations of state law, including failing to account for the missing money and improperly spending nearly $14,000 on membership and dues at a local business club.
“It could be merely accounting errors, it could be more serious,” Stefan Ritter, the commission’s executive director told Channel 2 Action News. “But we’re talking almost $80,000 in unaccounted for expenditures, and that’s a pretty serious situation. We will take that very seriously.”
Other Georgia politicians may ultimately find themselves subject to similar scrutiny. Ritter said the commission may develop a computerized audit system that will automatically search campaign reports for such accounting discrepancies.
One critic of the agency likes the idea of automatic checks. The system would catch discrepancies and save staff time and taxpayer money, said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. He thinks there are plenty of other politicians who could be investigated.
“I imagine a thorough audit of all reports would uncover a lot of missing information and discrepancies from campaigns and public officials,” Perry said.
Edwards’ missing campaign cash was first disclosed by the AJC, Channel 2 Action News and The Georgia News Lab in March. The news organizations reported Edwards could not account for the missing $80,000. Since then, he has repeatedly refused to provide records he says can explain the discrepancy.
This week Edwards said he was taken by surprise by the commission investigation.
“I have done nothing, and I’m being honest with you,” Edwards told the AJC. “My name has just been thrown through the mud.”
A student journalist at The Georgia News Lab noticed Edwards’ campaign finances didn’t add up while reviewing public records for a class in investigative reporting. Public agencies responsible for policing political campaigns apparently never noticed the discrepancy.
The campaign reports showed Edwards had nearly $196,000 in cash on hand in June 2010. In September he reported having only about $117,000 on hand — nearly $80,000 less. But he reported spending only about $1,500 between June and September, and the missing money is not accounted for in subsequent reports.
Earlier this year, Edwards provided the news organizations with bank records he said would explain the discrepancy. But those records only raised new questions. They showed that for years he had far less in the bank than he reported on official campaign reports. The bank statements also included some expenditures not recorded in campaign reports, while others were included in the reports but not on bank statements.
Edwards later said he hired an auditor to investigate the discrepancy. He said the auditor traced the problem to an error in how some totals were carried over from one report to another in 2008. But he has declined to provide copies of records he says would document the error.
He also has not provided a copy of the audit, despite pledging to do so. Earlier this week Edwards said he wasn’t sure whether the audit — apparently begun in February — is complete.
An ethics commission investigation could resolve the questions surrounding Edwards’ campaign finances. Though Edwards left office in December after 14 years on the Fulton Board of Commissioners, the agency has the authority to subpoena his campaign bank records, if necessary.
“If they’ve got an auditor who they believe has cleared them, well then let us see the audit,” Ritter said. “Let us see the paperwork. Let us see the hard-core stuff and we’ll make our own decision.”
According to the investigation notice, the agency sees several possible violations:
- Edwards failed to properly account for the missing $80,000 in 2010.
- After the news organizations questioned his reports last spring, Edwards filed an amended June 2010 disclosure report. But the report was incomplete, failing to disclose any campaign contributions or expenditures.
- Campaign reports from 2011 to 2014 show Edwards spent nearly $14,000 on membership dues and expenses at The Commerce Club in Atlanta. That may have violated a law requiring contributions to be spent only for campaign purposes.
- Edwards was late in filing his December 2013 campaign report.
The ethics commission gave Edwards 30 days to respond to the allegations. It could dismiss the case if it finds there were no violations.
If the commission believes violations were committed, the case could go to a hearing, and Edwards could face thousands of dollars in civil fines. Ritter said criminal charges are possible if the investigation uncovers more serious issues.
Edwards maintained he has done nothing wrong and said he can easily explain the missing $80,000 to the commission. He said he used The Commerce Club for campaign events and believes the expenditures were legitimate.
But he said he doesn’t understand why he’s being singled out for an investigation.
“I’ve been a commissioner for 14 years,” Edwards said. “I get out of politics and everybody wants to sling the mud.”