An audit of the state ethics commission has revealed systemic problems, including inequitable handling of complaints, fines and investigations, within the agency.
The findings of the audit were released last month and paint a troubling picture of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, the formal name of the ethics commission.
“Since 2011, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission has been the subject of controversy, which has raised questions about its ability to manage its responsibilities effectively, and has resulted in the loss of public trust and confidence,” the audit report states.
While the audit’s findings were unsurprising in some regard — after all, the commission’s director, Holly LaBerge, was fired in September and more than $3 million have been paid out to former employees who said they lost their jobs after investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign — the audit findings do place the commission’s problems in stark terms.
“We also identified problems with the hiring of underqualified staff, protection of assets, and controls over data and documentation,” the report states. “These problems included potentially inappropriate expenditures for personal legal services, which have since been turned over to the Attorney General’s Office for further review.”
The report goes on to state the commission’s troubles stem, in large part, from a “dysfunctional organizational culture” that has resulted in an unprofessional work environment, high employee turnover rate and numerous lawsuits.
“As a result, the commission has become largely ineffectual while dealing with personnel matters and lawsuits,” the report states. “The commission’s 216 open cases have been open an average of three years.”
Still, the problems run deeper.
For several years, local elected officials across Georgia were required to disclose campaign donations directly to the state.
But an electronic filing reporting system was rife with errors, incorrectly flagging officials as late filers or nonfilers and subsequently charging them fines.
“So apparently the ethics commission is fining local officials for late or nonfilings, and the fines escalate as time goes by,” said Amy Henderson, director of communications for the Georgia Municipal Association, a group that lobbies for the interests of cities across the state. “... Our folks are upset because they believe they had attempted to or actually did file the required forms. The ethics commission has the legal authority to waive fines, but it appears they are choosing not to do that.”
The report states the commission “does not have processes in place to ensure all filed reports are accurate.”