Fulton tax chief defends $39K SUV, denies retaliation

Georgia’s highest-paid elected official says he needs a taxpayer-funded full-size SUV to get to meetings and public appearances, and he won’t even consider turning it in unless told to by the whole Fulton County Commission.

Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand also denies retaliating against the county commissioner who first brought attention to the vehicle’s purchase. He used tax records to question her eligibility for office, suggesting in a memo to the interim county attorney and commissioners this week that she may actually live in Gwinnett County.

He says Commissioner Liz Hausmann brought that on herself by filing false documents.

Both Hausmann and her landlord say she still lives in Johns Creek, though at a different address than the one listed on her vehicle registration and campaign disclosures.

“It’s not every day that a commissioner gives us documents that are not correct,” Ferdinand told Channel 2 Action News, “so I made an extra step to notify the attorney.”

Ferdinand has been under fire for weeks for buying a $39,000 Ford Explorer Limited with his department’s funds — despite earning nearly $350,000 per year. Following the revelation of the vehicle, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the purchase order through an open records request and learned it was a higher grade of vehicle than what appeared in a county document.

Critics have said an official with Ferdinand’s income can afford his own car and gasoline.

Ferdinand publicly defended his use of the vehicle for the first time Thursday, speaking to at least a couple of media outlets. The tax commissioner has not responded to repeated requests for interviews and written questions from the AJC, but he spoke to the newspaper’s news partner, Channel 2, while attending a tax officials conference in Athens.

He said he drove the Explorer there, citing that as one of many legitimate reasons why he needs a county vehicle. He said he also uses it to get to school board meetings, community meetings and his department’s satellite offices.

“A lot of the work I do requires me to go out into the field. In fact, I go several nights to give talks,” he said. “I have many uses for this car in the long county which I have. In fact, I have five offices.”

But Jim Honkisz, interim president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said Ferdinand can traverse Fulton with his own car, considering how he uses public office to supplement his salary.

The bulk of Ferdinand’s pay comes from $1-per-parcel fees charged to Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs for adding their tax bills to county bills. State lawmakers have tried in vain to end the practice, saying Ferdinand makes his extra money using county labor and equipment.

“The guy just seems to be insensitive and as audacious as possible,” Honkisz said.

Commission Chairman John Eaves says he wants Ferdinand to return his SUV and allow some other employee to use it, but Ferdinand pointed out that Eaves “is just one member of the board.”

Eaves said Thursday that he was making a “conciliatory suggestion” and that the county’s take-home vehicle policy needs reviewing. “My issue is more the cost of it,” he said.

Ferdinand’s Explorer — which according to the dealer has a moon roof, leather seats, built-in navigation and four-wheel drive — is the newest, most upscale vehicle assigned to anyone who is permitted to drive home a county vehicle. He bought the SUV, originally reported in a county take-home vehicle list as an Explorer XLT, last year under the County Commission’s radar, since it was just one vehicle and fell below a $50,000 threshold.

The commission often buys several cars together on discount through a state contract. Records show other recent Explorer purchases of about $18,000 to $22,000 apiece.

“Yes, it may look excessive to some,” Ferdinand said, “but to us it seems appropriate for the kinds of things we do.”

County records show the tax commissioner’s office has nine other fleet vehicles assigned to it: seven 2003- and 2004-model Explorers, a Taurus and a cargo van.

Ferdinand also said Hausmann has yet to produce documents proving where she lives. Her attorney, Josh Belinfante, said he is compiling records, including affidavits from her sister and brother-in-law attesting that Hausmann has been living with them in Johns Creek since August.

The county commissioner declined interview requests Thursday. In a statement, she likened her plight to conservative groups targeted by the Internal Revenue Service.

“In the light of this most recent act by the commissioner, and in the context of what we are seeing out of Washington,” Hausmann said, “we are examining our laws to make sure that Fulton County taxpayers are protected against retaliation.”

Ferdinand said he received an anonymous tip — through what channel he doesn’t recall — that Hausmann lives in Gwinnett, and his research found she has sold the Johns Creek property listed on campaign forms and on her vehicle registration. The taxes on the car were paid recently, he said, with a check bearing a Gwinnett address.

Hausmann said she recently dealt with her father’s death and is going through a divorce, so updating her address slipped her mind. The vehicle, she said, is driven by her adult daughter, who paid the registration renewal using a check with her father’s address.

Ferdinand denies retaliating, saying he would have questioned the commissioner’s residency earlier had the car tax been paid before her birthday.

“If it was paid on time … she would have received a letter before that board meeting anyway,” he said. “It’s just the timing of, the confluence of, all these things into my office at one time.”