Ethics panel member says 2004 lobbyist fine invalid

AJC Exclusive: Proctor continues to disregard punishment from board he now serves

He never did any of these things and says he doesn’t have to.

Robert Proctor, an Atlanta lawyer appointed to the board last month, said he has known about the order for years, but he was never properly served notice by the commission.

“An order that is never served on the other party is not an order,” he said.

The odd case seems to have arisen from bungling by the state government’s watchdog. With Proctor’s appointment, the state now has a commission board member disregarding an order from the very panel on which he now serves. And no one seems to know what to do about it.

Proctor says the case will likely remain in limbo.

“It’s just going to sit there,” he said. “I have no intention of doing anything about it.”

The case stems from an appearance by Proctor before the state Senate Finance Committee in 2003. Proctor, an attorney representing a tax lien collection company called Vesta Holdings, spoke against proposed legislation that would hurt the profits of such companies.

A supporter of the legislation filed an ethics complaint against Proctor. In commission hearings, Proctor argued — and still argues — that as a practicing attorney he was allowed to speak at state hearings without registering as a lobbyist. Attorneys with the state attorney general’s office argued that Proctor was wrong. They said he was paid by a company to lobby the Legislature. The commission ruled against Proctor in 2004. He was ordered to pay the fine, register as a lobbyist, and file disclosure reports for parts of 2003 and 2004.

Proctor says he never received formal notice of the order, and therefore it is not legally enforceable. He doesn’t know why no one sent him the order. He learned about it years ago, he said, but took no action because “there is no legal mechanism for me to do so.”

Tom Plank, the commission’s interim executive secretary, said no one who worked on the commission at that time is still there today. He said he looked at the Proctor file and “it appears to be that service was never done.” He said if Proctor wasn’t served, he wasn’t sure the order could be enforced. Plank said the order appears to have been mislaid and forgotten. He could not say if other cases were also misplaced. Asked if the commission, which now has Proctor as a member, will reissue the fine, Plank said, “That will be up to the new commission.”

Teddy Lee, who served on the commission at the time and wrote the opinion, is retired. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Rick Thompson, who stepped down as the commission’s executive secretary in August, said that in 2004 the commission only sent out first class mail and would not have anything on file that would show that Proctor had received a letter. He said today the commission sends out orders via certified mail.

A spokesman at the attorney general’s office said they had no further dealings on the case after 2004.

Proctor said he doesn’t know why the commission didn’t contact him over the years. “It’s not like they couldn’t find me,” he said.

He said that if he had received the order, he would have appealed it.

In January, Proctor was appointed to the commission by a longtime friend, Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), who was briefly speaker of the Georgia House. On Jan. 11, the last day he was in office, Burkhalter chose Proctor to fill a vacancy on the five-member ethics board.

Proctor is set to serve at the post for four years.

Proctor said that when Burkhalter asked him to take the job, he told him right away about the outstanding order. Burkhalter told him he still wanted him to take the post. Burkhalter did not return calls for comment.

Proctor said he never imagined serving on the Ethics Commission, but when Burkhalter called him, he felt it was his duty.

Asked about the outstanding order against him from the commission on which he now serves, Proctor said, “It’s not causing me any heartburn.”

Proctor has been well known in the Atlanta area for years as a tax attorney and political activist. He has never held office. In the mid-1990s, he was chair of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for limited government and other conservative principles. He led campaigns against bond referendums, state sales taxes and property reappraisals.

He has headed political groups on various issues and in support of various conservative candidates.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.