Watchdogs: public isn’t seeing local politicians’ campaign disclosures

A coalition of government watchdog groups says a 2013 campaign finance law has made local politics less transparent to voters and needs to be changed.

House Bill 143 moved the filing of campaign finance forms for local races from the state ethics commission down to local “filing officers,” usually a city clerk or county election superintendent. Local politicians say it makes more sense to file with a local officer who knows the deadlines and candidates.

Those local officers are tasked with collecting the local candidates’ reports and passing them back up to the ethics commission.

But Common Cause Georgia Chairman Clint Murphy said that isn’t happening.

“We found it next to impossible to find that information,” Murphy said. He said the problems with the filings went “across the board” without regard to region or party affiliation. “In some cases, candidates and current officeholders have not filed any disclosure reports.”

The result is that Georgians know less about who is funding local elections than they did two years ago, he said. Common Cause surveyed reports from 60 cities across the state and found widespread instances where candidates were not current with their campaign disclosures, personal financial disclosures or both.

For example, Common Cause found no reports filed with the state for any member of Dublin city government since January 2014, when HB 143 took effect.

Common Cause was part of a coalition of groups that successfully pushed for changes in ethics law in 2013. Those changes contained in HB 142 focused on setting limits on the gifts lobbyists give to public officials. At the time, the companion bill, HB 143, drew little notice from the general public, but lobbying groups representing city and council officials pushed hard for its passage.

Local politicians had complained since the Legislature passed a law in 2010 requiring them to file directly with the state ethics commission. Complicated procedures, confusing timelines and a maddeningly buggy computer system frustrated mayors, school board members and other local politicians from across the state.

But Common Cause and its allies say returning campaign filing to the local level has shrouded those races in secrecy.

“This is a very scary report for voters across Georgia,” said Bryan Long, the executive director of Better Georgia, a left-leaning activist group. Without information on who is funding local candidates, Long said voters are “completely blind” when they cast their ballots.

Elizabeth Poythress, the president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said transparency in campaign finance is a must if voters are to root out corruption in government and ensure competitive elections.

“We need to know where the money is coming from,” she said.

The coalition members say the reports should be filed electronically with the state ethics commission, an office once seen as so troubled that both candidates in the 2014 gubernatorial election pledged to massively overhaul it.

New leadership and a somewhat larger budget, however, have improved the commission’s image, and Murphy said the commission can do the job.

Stefan Ritter, the executive director of the state ethics commission, agrees with the watchdogs that many local filing officers are not complying with the law or are doing so only “sporadically.”

“In my view, there are some very plain obvious things about HB 143 … that are not the best way to conduct business,” he said.

Ritter said state politicians have to file electronically, but local officials can file paper records that are then supposed to be faxed to the ethics commission and hand-entered into the state system.

“We get partial faxes, they fax the back page and not the front, all kinds of problems,” he said.

The system would work better if state and local politicians worked under the same set of filing rules, he said.

No state lawmakers joined the group for a press conference Wednesday outside the Capitol, and members of the coalition admitted they face an uphill fight. Although the Tea Party Patriots has signed on to the effort, the coalition likely will be viewed as left-leaning by the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Better Georgia, which was not a member of the 2013 coalition, is a dogged critic of the GOP. And critics of Common Cause, including former board members, say the group has been pushed to the left by the national organization’s “ideological” goals. Murphy said the characterization is unfair and that the group’s goals for open and transparent government are the same as ever.

Regardless, a bigger hurdle likely will come from local officials with sour memories of filing with the ethics commission. They can be expected to vigorously fight any attempt to require them to change again.

Earlier this week, Peachtree City Mayor Vanessa Fleisch filed overdue forms with the ethics commission for her moribund City Council campaign account.

When she decided to run for mayor in 2013, Fleisch said she assumed her City Council campaign fund — which had no money in it — was closed. It wasn’t, and she missed a series of filing deadlines, racking up late fees of $625.

“I should’ve been told I needed to close that out,” she said. “The only notice I received that there was a fine was a certified letter on Friday, so it’s been two years.”

Fleisch filed a series of reports this week filled with zeros to comply with the pre-2013 requirements and is appealing the fine. In the meantime, Fleisch said anyone who wants to see her mayoral campaign reports can ask Betsy Tyler — the city clerk.