Disciplined Fulton appraiser will stay on tax panel

The state is suspending Donald Johnson's license to appraise residential real estate, but he'll still be making decisions about the taxable values of Fulton County properties as a Board of Assessors member.

Accused of incompetence, negligence and falsifying documents in several appraisals for private clients, Johnson promised the county commissioner who appointed him, Bill Edwards, that he would resign as an assessor if he was found in any way at fault, according to Edwards' account of a private meeting in April.

While he's being disciplined for "negligence or incompetence," Johnson says that since the state didn't prove him complicit in mortgage fraud, he won't step down. He'll remain one of five Fulton assessors who decide the fair market values of homes, businesses and land lots, which determine how much Fulton taxpayers get billed.

Administrative Law Judge Ana Kennedy's decision, issued earlier this week, found Johnson guilty of violating state appraisal regulations. She confirmed most of the charges by Georgia Real Estate Commission and Appraisers Board, which involved his overvaluing of three Atlanta quadruplexes and a townhouse between 2005 and 2007 during the peak of the housing bubble.

Kennedy, however, declined to pull Johnson's professional appraiser's license, noting his lengthy career with no prior disciplinary marks and insufficient evidence that he took part in fraud. She opted to fine him $2,000, suspend his license for six months and order him to take seven hours of coursework on how to appraise properties.

Johnson said his 42 years as a professional appraiser shouldn't be marred by the state's accusations on four properties.

"I told [Edwards], point-blank, that if they could prove fraudulent appraisals and I had inflated appraisals, that I would resign," Johnson said. "And her order didn't say either of those things."

Barbara Payne, executive director of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, called Johnson's refusal to quit "typical."

"The problem is, he and others allow for simple mistakes to be OK," Payne said. "In this day and age, it's not OK. Simple mistakes cost taxpayers thousands of dollars."

Edwards indicated early in the week that he wouldn't press Johnson to resign.

By state law, a county commission can't force out an assessor over a private business matter, and Johnson doesn't need a license to serve. He's one of only three current board members who are professional appraisers.

He's also the second member to be disciplined by the state. Last year, the County Commission asked Rick Kenny to resign after learning that the Real Estate Commission deemed him "negligent" in overvaluing a duplex in 2005. Kenny refused and remains on the board.