Recently installed State House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, failed to disclose at least $120,000 in payments to his private business as required by Georgia law, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Georgia News Lab has found.
Records show that since taking office in 2005, Burns, who has supported legislation designed to increase transparency in state government, has not disclosed more than $77,000 in payments from Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the agribusiness of which he is president and CEO. He also failed to disclose at least $43,000 in payments from his home county’s school system, which, as a subdivision of state government, is subject to disclosure law.
Since 2010, state law has required that elected public officials disclose annual payments from the state of more than $10,000 on financial statements available for inspection by the public.
In October, Burns amended his financial disclosures for 2012 through 2014 to include previously undisclosed businesses and properties. Like the originals, the amended disclosures do not list the payments that his company, B & S Feed and Farm Supply, Inc., received from DNR or the Effingham County school system that exceeded $10,000 during those years.
The state requires the disclosures so members of the public can know about potential conflicts of interest and so that the government operates more transparently. Failure to comply can result in fines imposed by the state ethics commission, formally know as the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission.
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Burns told the AJC he believes his disclosures have been transparent and accurate.
“I’ve had … my disclosures looked at by professionals and their advice to me was that you’ve fulfilled what was asked of you and what was required, and in some cases more than what was asked,” he said. “I’ve checked to see if this is what we needed to do and the answers have been well, you done pretty good for a country boy.”
Over the past 10 years, the Legislature’s fitful stabs at ethics legislation have been built on the notion of transparency. Whether a lawmaker is receiving campaign contributions or conducting business with the state, the principle has been that the transactions are ethical if they are accurately and transparently disclosed to the public.
Georgia House Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, said that financial disclosure statements can be a daunting task to keep straight for lawmakers, especially if one is involved with multiple businesses.
“In general, financial disclosures are a good thing,” she said. “Transparency is always valuable to the public.” Jones said that legislators, including Burns, try to be as transparent as possible.
But when the News Lab and the AJC asked Burns to provide his own copies of records that had been disposed of by the Effingham school system, he declined, saying that he “didn’t want to set a precedent for other (House) members.”
When confronted with other minor errors to his disclosure statements, including his not listing fiduciary roles in several companies in which he has an ownership interest, he expressed exasperation with the questions and said the disclosure requirements should be clarified.
“How many times do you want me to list them?” he asked.
William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs said the disclosures are important for allowing the public to understand where a legislator’s business interests lie.
Perry agreed that the law is confusing regarding what needs to be reported on which form, but said that it’s better for officials to over-disclose to avoid any appearance of withholding information. He also suggested that it is up to officials to clarify any uncertainty.
“Burns could help clean up the law so it is clear,” he said.
Undisclosed DNR payments
Throughout his time in the Legislature, Burns has served on the House Game, Fish & Parks committee which oversees Department of Natural Resources legislation. He chaired the committee from 2011 until last year, when he stepped aside after being elected majority leader by the GOP caucus. He remains a member of the committee.
In 2010, as well as 2012 through 2014, Burns failed to disclose payments on his personal financial disclosures from the Wildlife Resources Division of DNR’S Fisheries Management unit to B & S that exceeded the $10,000 disclosure threshold. Payments from DNR to his company in 2011 did not meet the threshold for disclosure.
Last year, the investigative website Atlanta Unfiltered reported that Burns filed business transaction reports with the state listing nearly $72,000 in DNR payments to his business for fertilizer, fish food and similar products in 2011 through 2014.
The Georgia News Lab and the AJC identified undisclosed payments to Burns’ company of more than $17,000 in 2010. In total, Burns failed to disclose at least $77,000 in DNR payments in 2010 and 2012 through 2014. Under state law, all of these payments should have been reported on his annual personal financial disclosure statements.
Burns’ business has received payments from DNR every year since 2004, the year Burns was elected to the Legislature, with the exception of 2005.
During his decade on the Game, Fish & Parks committee, Burns helped pass legislation that benefited the DNR. In the 2013-2014 session, for example, he sponsored a bill that created a non-resident lifetime infant sportsman’s license. In a newspaper column, Burns wrote that the sale of the licenses would allow the DNR “to leverage much-needed federal dollars to enhance the hunting experience for all Georgians.” HB 786 made it possible for Georgia residents to purchase lifelong sportsman’s licenses for out-of-state children or grandchildren, under age 2. It also allowed the DNR to receive an increased share of federal conservation funds derived from an excise tax on sporting arms, handguns, ammunition and archery equipment.
HB 381, also sponsored by Burns, allowed members of DNR’s board to also serve as non-voting members of the DNR Foundation, the department’s fundraising arm. Environmentalists said the measure created a potential conflict of interest, allowing a member of the foundation board to seek donations from businesses and other entities that are subject to regulations put in place by the DNR board, on which they also sit.
Undisclosed school payments
Over his decade in office, Burns has also failed to disclose payments from the Effingham County Board of Education. Burns’ family has longstanding ties to the school district. His father served on the Board of Education during the 1960s and 1970s, according to board minutes, and Burns’ wife, Dayle, is a retired Effingham teacher and school principal.
Burns’ company began receiving payments from the school board years before he was elected to office. Between 2010 and 2015, the time frame for which the most complete financial records are available, Burns twice failed to disclose payments to his company from the school board totaling at least $43,000; nearly $16,000 in 2010 and more than $27,000 in 2013. The payments were for purchases of fertilizer, crabgrass treatment, weed killer and other agricultural products.
Burns told the AJC he did not disclose the payments because he believed the board is a local, not state, entity. However, Robert Lane, staff attorney to the state ethics commission, confirmed that local boards of education are subdivisions of state government and are subject to state disclosure requirements.
Becca J. G. Godwin, a graduate student in mass communications at Georgia State University, is a participant in the Georgia News Lab, a collaboration among journalism programs, the AJC and WSB-TV. Godwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org