Ethics commission rejects Cobb sheriff’s bid to quash subpoenas

June 15, 2019 Marietta- Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren walks up to the podium to speak during the 30th annual Cobb Sheriff’s Corn Boilin’ at Jim Miller Park in Marietta, Georgia. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
June 15, 2019 Marietta- Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren walks up to the podium to speak during the 30th annual Cobb Sheriff’s Corn Boilin’ at Jim Miller Park in Marietta, Georgia. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com

The state ethics commission on Wednesday upheld subpoenas targeting Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren in connection with alleged campaign finance violations.

The sheriff has denied wrongdoing.

Warren was not present at the hearing before the the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, which unanimously rejected his attorney's petition to quash four subpoenas sent to Warren's campaign, the county finance department, the Sheriff's Office and the Cobb Youth Museum.

Warren has also challenged a fifth subpoena issued to his campaign's bank, but that case will be heard in Cobb Superior Court because different laws apply to financial institutions.

While Wednesday's arguments were largely procedural, Commission Deputy Director Robert Lane, who is leading the investigation into Warren, hinted that he and his staff have much of what they need and know exactly what they are seeking.

The museum and the county finance department have already complied with the subpoenas. Furthermore, investigators reviewed the campaign’s bank records over the summer pursuant to a “notice of inspection,” which means they have a pretty good idea what they would receive if the subpoena to the bank is upheld in court.

At one point, Warren’s attorney, Douglas Chalmers, Jr., challenged the commission’s jurisdiction to subpoena the youth museum, which partners with Warren on his annual Corn Boilin’ re-election fundraiser.

“I can answer Mr. Chalmers’ question of how do we have jurisdiction,” Lane replied. But to do so, he would have to release some of the documents his office has already received, and they “may not be documents that the commission, Mr. Chalmers and his client want released at this moment.”

Chalmers had argued that commission staff, represented by Lane, lacked the authority to issue subpoenas on behalf of the commission itself without a finding of probable cause. He also sought the recusal of Commissioner Rick Thompson over comments Thompson made about the case to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July, before he joined the commission.

The attorney was unsuccessful on both counts.

“If we had to go forward with a full-on probable cause hearing to initiate any subpoena, it would be simply unworkable and debilitate the commission staff,” said Commission Chair Jake Evans.

Chalmers declined to comment on the outcome of Wednesday’s hearing. The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, which had not complied with the subpoena, did not respond to a request for comment.

Several Cobb residents who were in attendance offered differing views on the commission.

Jan Barton of East Cobb said she was concerned with due process and potential bias on the commission.

“Right or left, we should all be concerned with ethical issues,” she said. “The question of political independence is one that has plagued most ethics commissions.”

Caroline Holko, also of East Cobb and a Democratic candidate for House District 46, said it seemed like Warren was arguing he is above the law.

“I don’t understand how the subpoena is burdensome at all, because if you had done what you were supposed to do in the first place you wouldn’t have to spend any extra time, you would just have to click print,” she said.

An AJC report published in July found questionable accounting in Warren's public campaign finance disclosures, including thousands of dollars in unattributed "petty cash."

Some of the AJC's findings were echoed in a formal complaint filed against Warren in October alleging he misspent nearly $20,000 in campaign funds. The subpoenas suggest the scope of the investigation extends beyond that complaint, and could include potential misuse of county resources.

Lane said Wednesday he and his team came across “a number of issues” in the disclosures that campaign staff were unable to adequately explain.

“In his campaign reports, he cites petty cash disbursements, and then when you look at the petty cash disbursements, they are to expenses that on their face are not ordinary and necessary campaign expenses,” he said. “That’s what he’s been charged with.”