Clerks' passport profit examined

A little-known part of Georgia’s law allowing court clerks to supplement their income with passport processing fees could get a second look as state lawmakers consider other court legislation.

Georgia law allows the clerks to keep the counties’ portion of the administrative fees as personal compensation for doing federal work. The passport fees, currently $25 per application, are also charged to customers having passports processed at post offices. In those locations, the processing fee stays with the post office.

For some court clerks, the passport fees have accounted for tens of thousands of dollars in extra income as counties have seen an increase in the number of passports processed. A clerk in one county was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of stealing more than $140,000 in passport fees. And county commissioners in another county requested its clerk to repay a portion of the money.

The compensation may be legal but should be known to taxpayers, one state senator says. And at a time when county courts are experiencing tight budgets, the money should be turned over to the county to offset office costs.

“I’m not trying to take money away from the clerks, but I think there should be some control for what elected officials get paid,” said Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “I think taxpayers should know where their money is going.”

Ninety-four of Georgia’s 159 counties currently administer passport applications either through Superior Court clerks or probate courts, according to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. In the metro area, Cobb and Gwinnett counties do not process passports, and Clayton stopped in 2010.

In metro Atlanta, Douglas County, for example, processes passports, and Superior Court Clerk Rhonda Payne keeps a portion of the administrative fee. Last year, Douglas County processed 2,831 passport applications. Of the $70,775 in administrative fees, $31,500 was split between the county and expenses for the clerk's office, Payne said. She kept $39,275, as allowed by law, as personal compensation. Her salary last year was $85,000, according to information reported to the state's Department of Community Affairs.

Two years ago Payne stopped processing the passports because of the media attention surrounding the fees. saying "It just didn't seem worth it," she said. But Payne resumed the processing when the county administrator asked her to continue the public service.

“In a lot of cases where the clerks handle this, the employees do the work, and in a lot of cases the fees are kept by the clerks," Gooch said. "In my opinion, when a constitutional officer gets elected with a salary set by state law, I think that should be the only compensation they receive unless state law allows them to get additional pay for additional duties."

Former Dawson County Clerk of Courts Becky McCord was entitled to about $60,000 in passport fees between 2004 and 2009, but instead she wrote checks to herself for more than $211,000. McCord was convicted of theft and negotiated a plea deal last year for a 10-year sentence, with four served in custody, according to news reports.

Since then, the office has changed its practices and the money is now put into an account for supplies for the clerk's office, said Pam Hansen, Dawson's deputy court clerk. In 2011, Dawson processed 263 passports and turned $6,550 over to the county, Hansen said.

In 2008, Hall County commissioners discovered the clerk, whose salary was $122,000, had made an additional $86,000 from the passport fees in 2007. They requested he repay 75 percent of the passport fee money he had legally collected since the office began processing the documents in 1991. When a new clerk, Charles Baker, took office in 2009, he changed the process and began submitting the fees to the county for the general fund.

Gooch has not determined whether he will submit legislation to change the law this year, but he plans to discuss the passport fees if a Superior Court clerk bill comes before his committee this session.

In Cherokee County, $15 of the $25 administrative passport fee is sent to the county’s general fund, said Patty Baker, clerk of Superior, State, Juvenile and Magistrate Court. The remaining $10 goes to a support fund for Baker’s office to pay for miscellaneous items such as office supplies, uniforms and her cell phone. Baker claims the money as extra income with the Internal Revenue Service as required.

DeKalb County Superior Court Clerk Debra DeBerry doesn't keep the passport fee, but she would like to use it to buy office equipment in case of budget cuts.

DeKalb processed 5,454 passports last year; neighboring Fulton County completed 4,179. The $25 administrative fee in both counties goes to the county's general fund.

But the passport fee law -- similar to another law under fire that allows county tax commissioners to personally collect fees for billing taxes in cities -- is a holdover to the old days and unnecessary now, said Cobb County Superior Court Clerk Jay Stephenson, who took over the Cobb office in 1985.

“When I ran for the job it had a salary and I said that is what the citizens expect to be my compensation, so I said we were not going to issue passports," he said. "We’ve got plenty to do, and the post office is just down the street.”