State leader mixes public, private roles

Insurance commissioner uses state letterhead to settle dispute with DOT. Ethics watchdogs say he crossed the line, while Hudgens admits a “poor choice.”

When Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens wrote a state agency about a dispute over his private company’s unpermitted billboard, he made sure they knew who he was.

He used campaign stationery for his letter, complete with the state seal and his insurance commissioner’s office letter head. If it still wasn’t clear who was making the request to the Department of Transportation right-of-way division, Hudgens signed his name, adding “Diamond Outdoor Inc. Vice President, Georgia Insurance Commissioner.”

Hudgens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which obtained the letter through the Open Records Act, that he wasn’t trying to use the political power of his elected office to influence another state agency and help his business.

But ethics watchdogs and experts called it a clear example of a statewide elected officials using his public office to help his private business. And they said it likely violates state campaign law, which bans using campaign funds for private gain.

“It’s more than that it looks bad. It is bad,” said Rick Thompson, a former state ethics commission executive director who advises candidates on campaign finance issues. “This is a pretty blatant example of someone trying to influence individuals because of who you are.”

Hudgens, who is elected statewide, said he shouldn’t have used campaign stationery to make his request to the DOT. “Looking back on it, it was a poor choice,” he said. “It was an oversight on my part. If I need to refund the campaign a nickle or something (for the stationery), I will.”

Hudgens said DOT officials know who he is and he wasn’t trying to influence their decision by his use of his title and campaign stationery in his request.

“I was not requesting something that was unprecedented,” he added.

DOT officials declined to comment. They sent Hudgens’ son and business partner letters in October and November telling him their billboard was supposed to be removed in 2002 and was illegal. DOT staffers said in the letters that it would be removed unless it is moved back from the right-of-way. Hudgens’ office said the billboard has since been removed.

Hudgens said his involvement in the request started when his son asked him if he knew DOT Commissioner Keith Golden and could contact the DOT to resolve the issue.

The July 16 letter, which Hudgens said his son wrote, explained that the company was granted a permit for a billboard in Barrow County in 2001. Not long afterward, the DOT got the land condemned to build a clover leaf intersection at Ga. 316 and Ga. 81. The letter said the company was notified in 2003 that it could keep the sign in place until the construction begun.

“Some years later, it was brought to our attention that the plans for this clover leaf intersection had been scrapped or changed,” the letter said.

The letter said the company was notified this year that the permit had been canceled “some years ago.” So the company asked DOT to either sell it the land or sell it a permanent easement to keep the sign up. The letter made it clear the company preferred an easement.

Hudgens, a Republican who was re-elected to a second four-year term last month, said he copied the letter onto campaign stationery and sent it off. He also sent the DOT a “request to dispose of excess right of way” application.

“I thought they probably would have accepted one of the options,” Hudgens said.

Instead, he got a letter from the DOT’s property inventory and disposal manager saying, “After careful consideration, it has been determined not to (sell) this parcel at this time.”

The DOT response left off Hudgens’ title, but addressed it to his Department of Insurance office address on Capitol Hill.

His son got letters saying the billboard “was to be removed in 2002 from the acquired right of way at the expense of the property owner, per an agreement with the Department of Transportation as part of a roadway project.” The letter said if the billboard was moved off the right of way and the company paid permit renewal fees incurred since 2002, it would be permitted.

When asked why the issue dragged on, a DOT spokesperson said the agency doesn’t have the people or money to remove every illegal billboard in the state. But she said the agency had been talking to Hudgens’ company about the billboard for several years. A billboard permit cost $25 a year until 2012, when the price went up to $85 per year.

Thompson, who has been working on ethics issues for about 20 years, said he can’t remember seeing anything like Hudgens’ letter to the DOT.

“I don’t understand what he is thinking,” Thompson said. “It does not appear to be proper in any way. I can’t imagine any circumstance where it’s appropriate or proper for an elected official to identify himself as owner of a company, using the state seal, using his campaign, to get a state agency to entertain a request.”

William Perry of Common Cause Georgia, an ethics watchdog group, said it’s obvious Hudgens was using his name in hopes of getting his way.

“Whether it’s legal or not, I find it outrageous,” Perry said. “It’s a blatant attempt to use his public office to curry favor for his private business.”

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