Feb. 18, 2014 - Atlanta - Arthur Ferdinand leans back in his chair as the 10 A.M. hearing continues into the afternoon. Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand appears at a Fulton County Board of Ethics hearing concerning allegations that he gave Atlanta’s mayor special treatment on late tax bills. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Tax chief won’t face ethics investigation

Fulton County’s tax chief won’t face an ethics investigation for allegedly giving special treatment to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on late taxes, thanks in part to uncashed cashier’s checks the tax commissioner produced for the first time Tuesday.

It was yet another shift in the official story of why Reed owed tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent property taxes soon after taking office. For the first time, Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand offered a public explanation as to why Reed received drastically different treatment than ordinary taxpayers.

The latest: Reed sent in a cashier’s check for $21,476 in taxes that his company owed on a warehouse and a vacant lot, but the tax office never cashed it. The same happened with another check for $2,200, but it is unclear what that check was for.

Ferdinand handed copies of the two checks to the county’s Board of Ethics members during a probable-cause hearing Tuesday. The board later voted unanimously not to pursue an investigation of the tax commissioner.

The checks were a revelation to those following the case: although The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed open-records requests last year concerning Reed’s property taxes, the records supplied to the newspaper did not contain copies of the checks. As he left Tuesday’s hearing, Ferdinand ignored questions from an AJC reporter about the checks.

The check, Ferdinand asserted, shows that Reed tried to pay his taxes on time in October 2009.

“In those situations, we give the taxpayers the benefit of the doubt,” Ferdinand told the board. “Elected officials get the same treatment if they walk into my office.”

Typically, Fulton taxpayers who fail to pay all or part of their bills have liens slapped on their properties within months. The county may sell the liens to investors, who then collect interest and penalties and may auction properties to settle accounts.

When taxpayers have complained that they weren’t properly notified, as Reed’s attorney did, Ferdinand’s policy has been to tell them to resolve the matter by satisfying the debt with the firm that bought it.

Ferdinand on Tuesday offered about a half-dozen examples of other taxpayers who he said received the same treatment as Reed, but they were mostly because of errors on the county’s part, such as exemptions not accounted for or ownership changes not documented.

The taxes in the mayor’s case involved properties held by Cascade Investors, Reed’s real estate partnership.

“We’re not surprised by the outcome,” Reed spokesman Carlos Campos said. “Mayor Reed exercised his right, as any citizen is able, to appeal an improper tax lien being placed on the partnership’s property. He received no special treatment whatsoever, from anyone.”

In September, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that, soon after Reed was sworn in as mayor in 2010, Ferdinand personally intervened to buy back an $18,500 tax lien lodged against the warehouse property. Vesta Holdings, a private debt collector, had bought the debt from the county.

The AJC also found that Reed met personally with Ferdinand in April 2010 to discuss his company’s tax account. According to a letter from Reed’s attorney, Reed was concerned at the time that he wasn’t receiving mailings from the tax office because it was using an old address.

That address was his old law firm and the firm of his current attorney, Robert Highsmith.

“It is my understanding that Mayor Reed provided these checks to Commissioner Ferdinand when he initially reached out the commissioner to try to resolve this issue,” Highsmith said Tuesday, referring to the 2010 meeting.

Highsmith said he found copies of the checks when he retrieved files from storage, after the AJC story ran in September.

Ferdinand later took steps to nullify all liens ever placed against Cascade Investors, filing papers in Superior Court instructing the clerk to remove them from the record. He cited “address change” issues, as well as “payment processed before lien was filed.”

Rome, Ga.-based ethics advocate George Anderson, who filed the ethics complaint after reading the AJC article, accused Ferdinand and the board of a coverup.

“It still doesn’t wash,” he told the board. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Scrawled on the check copies were handwritten notes saying, “Not cashed per Mayor.” Anderson questioned where the check came from and when Ferdinand’s office received a yellow carbon copy from Reed.

“I really don’t know,” Tax Administrator Gladys Bradfield said in response.

The check’s discovery leaves other questions unanswered.

Ferdinand indicated his office helped Reed since he may have done nothing wrong, but Reed still wound up paying thousands of dollars in penalties and interest, plus a fee for a bounced check.

Ferdinand has repeatedly pointed out that debt collectors charge no more in penalties and fees than the county would, so there’s no harm to taxpayers. Yet rather than telling Reed to just pay off Vesta, Ferdinand pulled the lien back in to his office. The tax chief said Tuesday that the only benefit is the taxpayer gets to deal with his office rather than a private company.

The board didn’t appear concerned that the checks appeared for the first time Tuesday. Asked whether the tax office’s failure to turn them over in past records requests gave him pause, ethics board Chairman Donald Edwards said, “To me, it fits. Everything fits the timeline.”

Staff writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this article.