OPINION: Cobb court clerk’s side hustle and keeping the truth at bay

Credit: Cobb County

Credit: Cobb County

It’s one heck of a racket, and it’s legal. Well, mostly, we think. That’s pending a GBI investigation.

I’m talking about Cobb County Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor who makes $170,000 a year but who has pulled in an additional $425,000 during her first two years in office. Taylor’s swollen compensation — the governor makes just $175,000 a year — is due to a quirk (as in obscene flaw) in the law that allows county court clerks or probate courts to pocket fees generated by their office when residents apply for passports.

Yes, that’s correct. Taylor, the county’s first Democratic court clerk, is carrying on a tradition of many elected court clerks who view revenue pouring into their offices as their money.

Not to pick on Taylor, but she’s now the Poster Lady for a rotten system. It’s not like she herself processes the passport applications at home on weekends. No, that work is performed by taxpayer-paid employees in a taxpayer-paid-for building and done on computers paid for by ... well, you get it.

It’s not yet clear what the GBI is looking at. It could be that Taylor received $86,425 in “expedited shipping fees” paid for by applicants who wanted their passports quickly. That money was to go to Federal Express to hasten the process, not pay off Clerk Taylor’s car note or grocery bills.

Or the GBI could be looking at allegations that she went all Richard Nixon when my AJC colleague Brian Eason started sniffing around asking for records.

County employee Maya Curry says Taylor got increasingly defensive about disclosing the passport records, saying it was “her money.”

Taylor allegedly told Curry they needed to “get rid” of records and, “We’re just going to have to Donald Trump this thing.”

What that meant is unclear. Did it mean that she wanted to flush the records down a toilet? Or stash them away at her home?

Who knows? Taylor is not talking.

Taylor did tell Cobb commissioners she was paid the expedited fees in “error.” However, Curry later produced an email where she asked Taylor — back in May, way before any of this came to light — if she wanted to send the expedited fees to the county. One assumes the county still had to pay Federal Express for those applications even after Taylor got all the money.

The coverup allegations came in a letter to Cobb from attorney Stacey Evans, a Democratic legislator who once ran for governor.

“Ms. Curry is not trying to be a superstar here; she’s just a government employee trying to do the right thing,” Evans said in an interview. She said Taylor stood over Curry and told her to delete files.

“Literally, she stood over her shoulder,” Evans said.

Curry then went back, and after much trouble, retrieved the files. And she reported this to her supervisor.

Ultimately, Eason got some of the records, but not all, and wrote his story Nov. 4, headlined, “In Cobb, $425K in passport fees enrich Superior Court clerk.”

Two weeks later, Curry was placed on administrative leave. This prompted Evans to warn Cobb officials not to mess with her client because she’s a whistle-blower.

The county was quick to say Taylor is an elected constitutional officer who runs her own office and that other county officials cannot suspend or hire officials in that office.

Cobb Commissioner Keli Gambrill said Taylor has told commissioners she does “not have time to balance her books. That put up a red flag.”

Gambrill said the clerk has just one employee processing passports. “If that person gets bogged down, then she pulls employees from other departments and then those jobs get bogged down.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Aside from the inter-office intrigue, what is left is an audacious system that allows clerks and probate judges to take home fees made off the backs of taxpayer-paid employees.

In 2017, ACCG, which represents county governments in Georgia’s 159 counties, surveyed court clerks and probate judges on this issue. About 30 said they turned all the money over to their counties, while 50-plus put some or all of it in their own pockets.

Taylor was following the lead of her Republican predecessor, Rebecca Keaton, who took home $116,731 in passport fees during her last 4-year term and turned over $108,259 to the county. Early on, Cobb got 60% of the revenue and Keaton took in 40%. But the scale kept sliding, in Keaton’s favor, as her time in office dwindled.

“This should be alarming to the taxpayers,” said Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director for ACCG. “It’s double-dipping on county time.”

The law that allows this, he said, is a holdover from long-ago when clerks in small offices augmented their meager salaries with these fees. ACCG has pushed for a law to curtail this. In 2012, the legislature considered a bill to limit the compensation but it mysteriously disappeared.

“The clerks are a formidable force in Georgia,” Edwards said.

State Rep. Mesha Mainor, D-Atlanta, once asked how much revenue is paid to officials in “personal” fees and she was told, “They have no idea.”

“I thought, ‘This is crazy!’ " she said.

The new legislator has crafted a bill mandating counties report such payments. It’s a tiny step, she knows. “If they want to go off and spend it in Las Vegas or something,” she said, “just let us know.”