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Confusion rampant over campaign filings
Many local officials may owe money, but computer glitches causing errors
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A quick browse of the list of those owing fines to the state's ethics commission turns up the names of a number of local elected officials.

But whether any are guilty of the alleged transgressions — usually failure to file a report of campaign contributions to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — takes much more time to determine.

Due to changing election laws in Georgia, all locally elected officials across the state are required for the first time this year to file their campaign contributions and personal financial disclosures with the state-level campaign finance commission.

At the same time, the state commission has weathered one budget cut after another, leaving the commission operating on less than 60 percent of the funds it had in 2008 .

Errors and confusion abound.

The commission's website claims Gainesville Councilman Danny Dunagan owes $1,375 for not filing a report detailing campaign contributions up to June 30.

But further research on the website shows Dunagan filed a report, showing no new contributions since the last reporting period, one week before the report was due.

The commission's new executive secretary Holly LaBerge called the errant fine an "anomaly" that occurred when the commission made changes to its operating system.

"We are figuring out why our system picked that up in a strange, strange way," LaBerge said.

But errors on the site aren't strange.

Something similar happened to Gainesville Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras earlier this year, as the agency's computer system registered her twice, noting on one side that Figueras had filed a campaign contribution report but on another, fining her $1,375 for not filing that same report.

Early Friday, the site claimed Hall County Sheriff's Office Col. Jeff Strickland, a candidate for sheriff in 2012, owed $1,375 for failing to file a personal financial disclosure — a report due in July for incumbent candidates and due 15 days after a new candidate qualifies for a seat.

Since Strickland has yet to qualify for the sheriff's race and he is not an incumbent, such a report wasn't required of him in July.

When asked about the report, LaBerge said the commission's computer system "incorrectly" assumed that he was an incumbent.

Some fines do seem to be legitimate, however.

Newcomer candidate Debra Harkrider, who opposes longtime Gainesville Councilman Bob Hamrick, owes $1,375 for not filing a campaign contribution report for the June 30 reporting period.

When contacted by The Times this week, Harkrider seemed to think the fine might be an error. The Gainesville City Council candidate said she believed she was not supposed to file any reports until after she officially qualified for the election, which she didn't do until late August.

But LaBerge said commission rules state that as soon as a candidate files a declaration of intent to run for a seat with the commission, she is considered a candidate and therefore required to file contribution reports.

LaBerge said Harkrider was also late to file the personal financial disclosure due 15 days after she qualified for the seat.

Fines will be assessed for both.

Harkrider also claims she never received, until recently, the personal identification number she needed to file a report. But LaBerge said the commission's computer system shows the number was sent to Harkrider in the afternoon of April 12.

The system also shows that Harkrider requested the number again this month. Harkrider said Friday she's still trying to resolve the issue.

Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, said the organization has heard from a lot of local officials about problems with their new filing entity.

"There has been a lot of backlog and confusion, I think, at the ethics commission," Henderson said.
A number of incumbents on the local level have been confused about the new filing process, she added.

"We've had more issues and more problems with this than you can imagine," LaBerge said.

In turn, the commission's staff hasn't been equipped to handle its new workload.

"We have heard from a lot of them where they have called and tried to get answers, because they want to do the right thing, but they can't get in touch with anybody," Henderson said.

Georgia Municipal Association is working to have the fines reduced or removed altogether.

In the meantime, fines — whether real or in error — are accumulating for a number of local officials.

And the perception of a candidate's ability to keep a campaign above board is in jeopardy.

"The downside is it affects the people who need that information the most, which is the voters," Henderson said.