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HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Reporting for this story began when Ciara Bri’d Frisbie, a junior at Georgia State University, examined campaign reports filed by Fulton County commissioners as part of a class assignment with The Georgia News Lab, a journalism program in investigative reporting supported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. In examining the reports of former commissioner Bill Edwards, Frisbie noticed a sudden, unexplained drop in Edwards’ cash on hand during his 2010 reelection campaign. AJC reporter David Wickert and Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer confirmed Frisbie’s findings. The reporters interviewed Edwards and his campaign treasurer Feb. 13 and had several follow-up phone calls and email exchanges with the former commissioner. They also interviewed campaign finance experts and a member of the state ethics commission for the story.
- Tune in to Channel 2 Action News Monday at 5 p.m. and watch investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer's interview with former Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards.
- Go to myAJC.com to view the orginal campaign reports from former Fulton County commissioner Bill Edwards that sparked this special investigation.
Nearly $80,000 in political donations disappeared from the campaign reports of former Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards in 2010, a joint investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Georgia News Lab and Channel 2 Action News has found.
The funds vanished from Edwards’ campaign disclosures between June and September 2010, during a re-election bid in which Edwards had no opponent. The reports show no campaign expenses or refunds of contributions that would account for the missing $80,000.
In an interview, Edwards and his longtime campaign treasurer, Valencia W. Bean, provided reporters with bank statements they said would clear up the discrepancy. An examination of those records did not explain it and, in fact, raised new questions.
Beyond failing to account for the $80,000, the records show that for years Edwards had tens of thousands of dollars less in the bank than he reported having on hand in his official campaign disclosures. Edwards’ records are also riddled with discrepancies, with expenditures reflected in his bank account but not on official campaign disclosures, and vice versa.
The unaccounted for money in Edwards’ campaign reports was discovered by a college student from The Georgia News Lab reviewing readily available public documents for a class in investigative reporting. But state and local agencies responsible for policing political campaigns apparently never noticed Edwards’ public disclosures did not add up.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, isn’t surprised. He said sloppy record keeping is common in campaign disclosure reports. But he said the state ethics commission is so short-staffed and underfunded it can’t keep up with the tens of thousands of disclosures filed each year.
“The fact that a college student found this, it really underscores that it’s not hard to catch,” Perry said. “It’s just nobody is really looking at all of them.”
Edwards pledged to hire an independent auditor to clear up any discrepancies. He said he’s done nothing wrong and isn’t even convinced there’s a problem.
“I take issue with the word ‘discrepancy,’” he said in an interview about the missing $80,000. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t have a discrepancy.”
Bank records raise more questions
Edwards, an insurance agent, spent 14 years on the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, representing the southern part of the county. Last year, redistricting forced the 64-year-old Democrat to run against fellow incumbent Emma Darnell, who won in the Democratic primary and later trounced her Republican opponent.
Edwards supports efforts to create a new city out of unincorporated south Fulton County and is widely seen as a potential office holder in any new jurisdiction.
In 2010 Edwards ran unopposed for re-election. Nonetheless, state law requires all candidates to submit regular reports detailing money raised and spent during their campaigns.
On paper, Edwards itemized few campaign expenses on his 2010 reports. But the reports also reveal a sudden and unexplained drop in the money Edwards claimed to have in his campaign account.
Edwards’ records show he had nearly $196,000 in cash on hand in June 2010, just before that year’s July primary voting. But 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 on that same September report. The $80,000 difference is not accounted for in any subsequent reports.
When asked about the discrepancy, Edwards said the campaign was aware of the problem and filed an amended campaign report to correct it. He attributed the initial problem to an error in electronic filing, saying the filing system lost some of his expenditures.
The state ethics commission required candidates to file electronic reports, but the commission did not take over that role from Fulton County until 2011, well after Edwards would have filed reports for 2010. Reports to Fulton were done on paper.
Edwards could not produce a copy of the amendment he claimed he filed. And Fulton County said it has no record of Edwards filing an amendment. Edwards did file an amended campaign report in 2014 with the state ethics commission, but that amendment corrected an accounting issue with a report from 2013.
In the interview, Edwards and his treasurer also provided copies of his campaign’s bank statements from 2008 through 2011, saying they would account for the money. But the bank records only raise more questions.
The bank records show that for years Edwards had far less in the bank than he reported on official campaign disclosures. The discrepancy ranged from roughly $12,000 to $94,000 over the three years examined.
The bank statements also include some expenditures not recorded in his official campaign reports. And some spending reported in the official reports is missing from the bank statements.
When asked about discrepancies between his campaign’s bank records and official public filings Feb. 13, Edwards said he planned to hire an independent auditor to review his campaign finances.
He subsequently promised to share the findings with reporters. Edwards still had not produced the audit five weeks later, although he emailed Channel 2 Sunday afternoon saying his auditor had traced the discrepancy to an error with how some totals were carried over from one report to another in 2008.
Common Cause’s Perry said the size of the discrepancy in Edwards’ campaign account is unusual. But he said he’s seen plenty of campaign disclosures that don’t add up. He thinks many candidates overstate their campaign war chests to scare off potential competitors.
“So I imagine you can go back and find a lot of reports with a lot of missing money or a lot of padded money and it just goes unchecked because of our failures in the state to truly commit to a strong ethics commission,” Perry said.
In a phone interview last week, Edwards denied overstating the size of his campaign fund in public disclosures to scare off opponents. He also said the campaign only maintained one bank account, removing the possibility that the unaccounted for funds were kept elsewhere.
Though Edwards filed the disputed campaign disclosures with Fulton County, the state ethics commission was still responsible for determining their accuracy. After years of turmoil at the commission, R. Lawton Jordan III, its vice chairman, told the AJC that staff have instituted measures to improve the accuracy and accountability of campaign filings.
In December, Jordan said staff began randomly auditing 5 percent of all campaign disclosures from public officials or candidates from office.
“This shift in the way that audits are conducted is a positive as the random audits will hopefully encourage self-reporting,” Jordan said.
Perry said one way to ensure public campaign records match official bank records is to require candidates to disclose copies of their bank statements. Common Cause has sought such a law, but it’s gone nowhere in the General Assembly.
Late, missing reports
In interviews, Edwards seemed mystified over how his financial reporting could have gotten so far off track. He said that his campaign manager and treasurer were the only individuals with check-writing authority over his campaign accounts and portrayed himself as a hands-off manager of their decisions.
Edwards said he’s been “filing disclosures for 14, 15, 16 years; I’ve never had a late filing fee for disclosures. We’ve always disclosed what we had.” But ethics commission records show that Edwards was cited seven times for late disclosures from 2001 through 2008.
Edwards paid $75 for a late filing period in June 2001, $75 for a late filing in October 2006 and $25 for a late filing in December 2008. He was also fined $375 by Fulton County last year.
In addition, between June 2012 and December 2013 there is no record that Edwards filed campaign disclosures at all, an 18-month time period during which he was by law required to file two separate reports. There is no indication that the ethics commission fined Edwards for failing to file these reports.
Even Edwards wonders why election officials never noticed the $80,000 discrepancy uncovered by the college student’s investigation.
“When we filed the disclosures, we filed them on time for what they’re supposed to be,” Edwards said. “It’s kinda hard to miss $80,000.”