Judge threatens to jail Fulton officials over unpaid travel bills

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has detailed the General Assembly’s efforts to reform Fulton County government for nearly two years. Last year, the newspaper covered legislative debates over several new laws targeting Fulton County government and explored the possible repercussions. The AJC continues to report on the legal battle over one of those laws, which prohibits the County Commission from raising property taxes until next year. Today, the newspaper explores an issue raised by other laws passed last year, which give county courts greater control over their own budgets.

Some Fulton County judges say they’re exempt from travel reimbursement rules other county employees have to follow, and they’ve threatened to throw the county manager and finance director in jail unless they start paying the judges’ expenses.

Fulton officials have asked the judges to provide more documentation to justify some travel expenses, and they have withheld reimbursements until the judges comply. The judges say they don’t have to, citing new state laws that give them greater control over their own budget.

Now Superior Court Chief Judge Gail Tusan has ordered County Manager Dwight Ferrell and Finance Director Patrick O’Connor to show why they shouldn’t be held in contempt for violating a recent court order to reimburse the judges. She’s threatened to incarcerate them if they don’t. A hearing on the contempt issue is scheduled for Sept. 2, and a courtroom discussion of procedural matters in the case is set for Monday.

The showdown is the latest fallout from a flurry of new laws aimed at limiting the authority of Fulton County government. County officials also are in court defending their recent decision to raise property taxes, which critics say violates a tax cap approved by the General Assembly last year.

Taxpayer advocate Jim Honkisz said judges should be held to the same standard as other employees. He said requiring adequate documentation for travel expenses “seems to me to be a good accounting practice” that protects taxpayers from employee carelessness or malfeasance.

“Any claim of interference with judicial independence because the county has a documentation requirement for travel expense reimbursement seems misplaced and a red herring,” said Honkisz, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation.

Tusan declined to comment on the issue because it’s a legal matter pending in her court. Superior Court Administrator Yolanda Lewis declined to answer questions, including whether the judges believe the county’s travel reimbursement procedures are burdensome.

Lewis issued a statement saying Superior Court is “working collaboratively to resolve this matter with the assistance of the county manager and finance director for Fulton County. No further comment will be offered at this time to allow the collaborative process to move forward expeditiously.”

Fulton officials declined to discuss details of the spat with the judges. County Commission Chairman John Eaves said the dispute is “resolvable.” Ferrell and O’Connor did not respond to requests for comment.

In April, Tusan and Chief State Court Judge John Mather issued an order stating the courts’ 30 elected judges don’t need the county’s prior approval for travel expenditures. Though they’re willing to provide documentation for accounting purposes, they also said they don’t have to submit all of the paperwork Fulton usually requires, including a written report detailing the content of any conference and how it will enhance their work.

The judges cited the legislation – House Bills 441 and 442 – that gave the courts the authority to make line-item changes to their own budgets without seeking county approval. Both bills gave court administrators “oversight of the court’s budget,” but did not explicitly exempt them from following county procedures for travel reimbursements.

In the order, Tusan and Mather said they recognized “the need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.” But they ordered the county to reimburse all judicial travel expenses within 45 days. Fulton officials have not always complied.

One example cited in court documents: The county finance department asked Superior Court Judge Constance Russell to provide more documentation for a June trip to Amelia Island, Fla., for a State Bar of Georgia meeting that cost nearly $2,000. Russell submitted incomplete paperwork when seeking reimbursement, and county officials asked her to address the deficiencies.

On Aug. 13, Tusan ordered Ferrell and O’Connor to reimburse judges for travel expenditures within 10 days or show cause why they shouldn’t be held in contempt. If they fail to comply, “the court has the authority to incarcerate or impose other sanctions, including fines,” the judge wrote.

She said the county’s actions have hindered judges’ ability to maintain required certifications and cost taxpayers additional money because judges have been forced to book airfares or hotel rooms at the last minute.

State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, sponsored the legislation the judges have said gives them control over travel spending. He said he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the dispute, but said the county shouldn’t have any say over which seminars judges attend and how much they spend.

“I know in the past it’s been a difficult arrangement where the county makes the courts jump through hoops,” Willard said.

As to Tusan’s threat to jail county officials, Willard said he hopes “they would sit down and have a third party mediate it.”