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Georgia inspector general asked to look into gifts to state employees

A government watchdog group asked Georgia’s inspector general to look into whether a group that did work for the State Charter Schools Commission violated state law by not reporting it paid for agency staffers to attend events across the country and offered them stipends.

The filing by Common Cause Georgia on Tuesday was the second such action since The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the vendor gifts to employees at the commission in September.

Sara Henderson, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, called on commission officials to return payments they received from the vendor.

“Georgia’s citizens need to know that state employees are not being personally paid by the very vendors they are charged with overseeing on behalf of the taxpayers,” Henderson said.

“The citizens of Georgia should be able to have faith that their state government employees are not conflicted by receiving — or even being offered — side ‘consulting’ payments from state vendors, and vendors need to be held accountable for such inappropriate offers or payments and violations of important government transparency provisions,” Henderson said.

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The complaint says a Chicago nonprofit — the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — could wind up being prohibited from doing business with the state for a year and forced to repay what it received from the State Charter Schools Commission.

“If these important transparency laws are to mean anything, appropriate actions must be taken in the face of blatant violations as have been uncovered here,” Henderson said.

Corrie Leech, the communications director for the association, said her organization didn’t know about the reporting requirements and would comply in the future.

The AJC reported in September that the association has been paid at least $264,000 since early 2015 to help review charter petitions and applications, for consulting services and other duties. The state commission has the power to approve or deny petitions for state charter schools and renew, not renew or terminate state charter school contracts.

According to agency emails reviewed by the AJC, the association has offered to pay for Bonnie Holliday, the commission’s director, and other senior staffers to attend conferences and group events since at least 2015.

The emails show Holliday and Gregg Stevens, the commission’s deputy director and general counsel, submitted reimbursements to the association to pay for travel at least four times in 2017 in amounts higher than the $250 that would trigger a requirement that the association file vendor gift disclosures.

On the day a consulting contract was being finalized in June 2017, the association offered Stevens $1,000 as a “consulting stipend” and travel reimbursement to speak at a conference. Stevens turned down the payment.

Records show the association offered Holliday a $1,000 “consulting/facilitating fee” in 2017 for a conference in Phoenix. She accepted the stipend.

Under Georgia law, “No public officer other than a public officer elected state wide shall accept a monetary fee or honorarium in excess of $100 for a speaking engagement, participation in a seminar, discussion panel, or other activity which directly relates to the official duties of that public officer or the office of that public officer.”

However, in a written response in September, Lauren Holcomb, the commission’s communications director, said Holliday was asked to lead a session at the conference, forcing her to develop content and an agenda, organize speakers and present information, among other duties. She said those duties were outside the scope of Holliday’s job with the state, for which she was paid $125,000 in fiscal 2017.

Holcomb said Tuesday, “At the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia, we strive to adhere to the strongest ethical standards.”

She said the staff travel and financial stipends provided by the nonprofit organization were vetted and approved by the agency’s legal counsel.

“As with all requests,” Holcomb said, “we follow a strict approval process and only approve requests that fall within established state policies and procedures.”

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