Georgia’s Rep. Price gets ‘hardship waiver’ from ethics fee

State Rep. Betty Price was granted a waiver from a $125 ethics fee by making a unique argument: that having her name placed on a public ethics commission list of officials who were late filing required campaign or financial reports was a political "hardship."

The commission has the ability to waive late fees for “hardships,” such as a medical emergency at the time reports are due, or if an official, candidate or lobbyist doesn’t have the money to pay.

The panel voted 3-1 to grant Price a "hardship waiver" Wednesday after her attorney, Robert Highsmith, argued that she was not formally notified that she owed $125 for not filing a financial disclosure report on time in 2013, and thus got the "Scarlet L" of being placed on the public late-filing list. That list can be found online on the state ethics commission site.

Price is the wife of former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

The decision could open up the possibility of similar waivers for hundreds, if not thousands, of other officials, candidates and lobbyists.

“The argument could be made by everyone that has their name on the list that it is a hardship,” said Bethany Whetzel, a co-deputy executive director of the commission.

The Roswell Republican’s case dates to 2013, when she was a few days late filing a financial disclosure report that officials are required to file each year. The disclosures give the public information about an officials’ business holdings, which can show, for instance, whether a politician has conflicts of interest.

At the time, Price, was serving on the Roswell City Council. Ethics commission officials said she and other officials and candidates were notified of the filing deadlines. However, once she got on the publicly available late list, Price said she didn’t find out she owed the fee until 2016.

The commission earlier rejected her request for a “hardship waiver,” which would have eliminated the late fee. However, she asked for another shot and hired Highsmith, a prominent statehouse lobbyist and lawyer who frequently represents Republican lawmakers.

“Representative Price spent over three years on the late-fee list,” Highsmith said. “She wants this blemish, however minor, off her record.”

Highsmith said it caused “some amount of damage to Representative Price’s political reputation.”

The attorney blamed, in part, chaos at the ethics commission before Stefan Ritter took over running the agency in 2015 for the lack of notice to Price after she'd incurred the late fee and made the list.

Dennis Cathey, a commission member, proposed the waiver be granted “in light of the confusion” going on at the agency when Price was late filing the reports, calling her a “victim of a process” that was flawed at the time.

Whetzel said she did not know how many officials, candidates and lobbyists could make similar arguments and be granted waivers. But if they are all waived, it could cost the state tens of thousands of dollars.

“This is not an isolated late fee,” she said.

In emails from Price to the commission — obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act — the lawmaker is critical of the agency and its attempt to force her to pay the late fee.

“Is there a ‘fine’ for this sort of error?” she asks in a June 2016 note. “Or maybe an offset to my ‘huge’ indiscretion that results in a fine to me? Or maybe compensation for my time in trying to figure out what is correct?”

In another email requesting the fee be waived, Price said she had no idea that the commission considered her submission to be tardy.

“For all I know, curious people may have researched my status and see that you had identified me as having an unpaid delinquency,” she said.

Price wrote that her campaign filed an ethics complaint against an opponent for filing disclosures “obscenely” late in 2009 and never found out what happened to the case.

Later she wrote, “We just kept having to jump through ridiculous hoops and now it is even expected that I pay a $125 penalty three years later for a filing that made absolutely no difference to anyone because it was the same as the previous ones.”

She accused the agency of using the late filings as a “source of revenue for the department.”

She ended the email with, “I’ll forgive your peccadillos (as I have for six years) if you will forgive mine. Honestly, who should have the penalty?”

Commission staffers responded at the time that the case against her former opponent was still pending.