Fulton commission candidate admits violations

How we got the story

Last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Georgia News Lab and Channel 2 Action News reported that former Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards could not account for nearly $80,000 in campaign cash. The story began when reporter Ciara Bri’d Frisbie, a Georgia State University student, examined campaign reports of Fulton County commissioners as part of an assignment for the news lab. The initial report prompted a state investigation, and the news organizations have continued to track developments in the case for more than a year. Today’s report focuses on a proposed settlement of civil charges against Edwards.

A former Fulton County commissioner who is trying to win his elected office back has admitted violating campaign finance laws in the past and agreed to pay civil penalties.

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission accused former county commissioner Bill Edwards of misspending nearly $14,000 in campaign cash and failing to properly account for tens of thousands of dollars more. Robert Lane, the state commission’s attorney, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Edwards agreed last week to settle the case.

Under state law, Lane said, he can’t release the proposed consent order until the state commission approves it in June. That’s a month after Edwards faces fellow Democrat Emma Darnell in the primary election for Commission District 6, which covers most of south Fulton County.

Lane said there’s nothing in state law that would prohibit Edwards from disclosing the details of the settlement himself. But Edwards and his attorney, George Lawson, declined an Atlanta Journal-Constitution request to do so.

Lawson said the settlement is “irrelevant to the qualifications and suitability of either candidate in this race for a seat on the Fulton County Commission.”

Government watchdog William Perry disagreed. He said the settlement is “absolutely relevant to the election” and called on Edwards to release it.

“Mistakes happen, and they can be made up for, but that’s something for voters to decide,” said Perry, president of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “They should have all the relevant information.”

Last year, a joint investigation by the AJC, The Georgia News Lab and Channel 2 Action News found Edwards could not account for nearly $80,000 in campaign cash. The discrepancy stemmed from campaign finance reports filed in 2010.

Edwards initially provided the news organizations with bank records that he said would explain the discrepancy. But those records only raised more questions, and he has repeatedly refused to turn over other documents that he says could clarify his campaign records.

Prompted by the news report, the Campaign Finance Commission launched its own investigation last summer. After auditing Edwards' bank records, the commission determined that Edwards' campaign reports contained "numerous and repeated accounting errors," including a failure to properly account for legitimate campaign expenses and contributions.

It also found he spent $14,000 on membership dues and expenses at a local business club that were not legitimate campaign expenses. And he failed to file two campaign reports.

In fact, Edwards’ campaign records were such a mess the commission didn’t require him to correct them, because it would be too much of a hassle for the agency, according to the state investigation report.

In December, the commission found probable cause that Edwards had violated several provisions of state campaign finance law. Though it determined there weren't grounds for a criminal investigation, the agency was prepared to refer the matter to the Attorney General's Office for an administrative hearing.

Edwards recently told Channel 2 that the state investigation “vindicated me of any financial improprieties.” But in the settlement, he admitted to some violations, Stefan Ritter, the commission’s executive director, told Channel 2. Edwards’ attorney dismissed the final accusations in the state’s investigative report as “administrative issues.”

Lane said “all of the issues that were raised (in the investigation) were resolved to our satisfaction.” And he praised Edwards for providing numerous detailed records that allowed the commission to determine what was wrong with his campaign reports.

Still, Lane said, the issue is a matter of pending litigation until the commission board approves the settlement, most likely at its June 23 meeting. Citing the Georgia Open Records Act, he said he would not release a copy or discuss the details of the settlement, including what Edwards admitted to and how big a fine he must pay.

Lawson, Edwards’ attorney, rejected the AJC’s request to release the agreement.

“I am confident that the voters of this particular district are well aware of the qualifications and suitability of each candidate to serve their district,” he said.

Edwards served 14 years on the Fulton County Commission before a redistricting plan forced him to run against fellow incumbent and longtime ally Darnell. She defeated him in the Democratic primary in 2014.

Now Edwards is seeking to unseat Darnell in this year’s May 24 primary election. No Republican is running for the District 6 commission seat.

Darnell did not respond to a request for comment. Perry, the government watchdog, said a responsible public official would release the settlement agreement.

“From a political perspective, I’d want to be as transparent as possible about a thing like that,” Perry said. “Instead, hiding it like this makes it seem like there’s more problems.”