State to Fulton County: Turn over tax lien records

The state Law Department declined to accept the county's justifications for refusing to release Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand's tax bill database. Unless a more plausible reason is given, the state Attorney General's Office told County Attorney David Ware that Fulton must hand over the records within 10 days or face the possibility of legal action.

The attorney general can bring criminal or civil action against government officials who disregard sunshine laws. A civil lawsuit could be used to compel the release of records. Refusing to turn over public documents is also a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine, though such charges are rarely pursued.

The decision, given Wednesday by Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter, marks a major step forward in uncovering the scope and ramifications of a tax collections system that sells overdue bills of as little as $50 to private companies, which can tack on interest charges and sell houses at auction to collect the debt. The move also comes as Attorney General Sam Olens pushes a sweeping overhaul of the state's open records and open meetings laws.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has sought Fulton's tax database for more than a year, and state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who is trying to clamp down on tax lien sales, was similarly rebuffed last month.

"I can promise you this," Rogers said Thursday. "We will not stop until we get those records."

Asked whether he will comply, Ferdinand offered no details.

"We have received the Attorney General’s opinion," he said in an email, "and are consulting our attorneys for a response."

Selling liens essentially collects unpaid taxes, allowing the commissioner to boast collection rates of more than 95 percent each year.

But in several articles last year, the AJC described how homeowners, because of failings in the system, didn't know they owed overdue taxes until their homes were being auctioned and they owed thousands of dollars to settle small bills.

Rogers, a Republican from Woodstock, is pushing legislation to restrict lien sales, and he filed an open records request in January for data showing which Fulton properties had liens sold, and for how much, from 2000 to 2010.

The Fulton County Attorney's Office responded that the tax commissioner has no such documents.

In responses to the AJC's requests for the complete tax bill database, Fulton contended at one point that it could contain property records of judges, police officers, teachers and other government employees, and to sift through and redact addresses and Social Security numbers would cost the newspaper $16.2 million in labor and printing costs.

Ritter's letter to Ware said the records don't identify which property owners are government employees, and if documents could be withheld over such speculation, it would cripple the open records law.

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