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Agency clarifies HD 71 ethics allegations


  • By Sarah Fay Campbell
  • |
  • May. 26, 2020 - 11:05 AM

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This story has been updated with information from Sakrison.

House District 71 candidate Marcy Sakrison’s campaign recently accused incumbent Philip Singleton of an “ethics violation” for being one day late filing his personal financial disclosure.

The accusation harks back to the early days of last year’s special election campaign, when Singleton took shots at Sakrison for filing her disclosures after the due date – but within the grace period.

Later in the 2019 campaign, Singleton’s campaign report was late, and a late fee was assessed. Singleton said that he and all three of his opponents in the special election ended up with late fees last year.

Sakrison said that she has never had to pay a fee for being late on her campaign reports.

Late fees aren’t ethics violations, though candidates will often use that term when talking about their opponents.

In fact, though the website for the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission’s website is ethics.ga.gov , the organization doesn’t deal with ethics, and the late fees and fines it imposes on political candidates are late fees and civil fines.

“I always tell people that we have never dealt with anything dealing with ethics,” said Robert Lane, deputy director and general counsel for the commission. “We only deal with campaign finance.”

For the 2020 primary, personal financial disclosures were due 15 days after the candidate qualified. For Singleton, that was March 17 – as the COVID-19 pandemic was upending life in Georgia.

He filed the following day.

“Unfortunately this was during the beginning of the pandemic, and I was standing up the East Coweta Community Response Team and preparing my family for our quarantine,” Singleton said.

Singleton had been around Sen. Bruce Thompson, who was sick with presumed COVID-19, and his family was in self-isolation. On March 18, it was announced another senator tested positive, and the entire Georgia General Assembly went into isolation.

Singleton said his financial disclosure was exactly the same as last year, and it took about two minutes to file.

“I had just forgotten,” he said. “I also had an error on a report that I didn’t even realize until my opponent's surrogates pointed it out. Both were corrected immediately.”

Singleton pointed out that in Sakrison’s campaign disclosure, it shows she spent $900 on “compliance consulting.”

“I do everything myself – common for those who don’t accept special interest money,” he said. “The good news is I have saved hundreds of dollars by not hiring compliance people to do this for me. The bad news is I can’t fire myself when I make a mistake.”

Under state rules, elected officials and political candidates, as well as lobbyists, PACs and others, have to file regular reports outlining campaign donations and expenditures, and yearly personal financial disclosures.

Personal financial disclosures list business interests, fiduciary positions held, speaking fees and other types of compensation received by public officers, real estate interests, large investments, employment for themselves and family members, and the like.

Once someone pays a late fee, no records of it can be found on the state commission’s website. Late fees and late filings can only be found before the fee is paid.

“We don’t punish people for a late fee. The punishment is a late fee,” Lane said. And once someone pays the late fee, they are in full compliance with the law, so the record is removed.

State laws allow candidates to pay the late fee for their campaign finance reports out of campaign funds. Late fees for personal disclosure reports can’t be paid out of campaign funds.

The commission does impose civil penalties for substantive violations of the campaign finance act, Lane said, such as raising too much money or taking money from a person or organization that is not allowed.

“Those are things we punish and sue you for and impose civil penalties,” Lane said. Even those, he doesn’t call ethics violations. “I call them campaign finance violations,” he said.

You can view candidate campaign finance reports, personal financial disclosures, lobbyist reports, outstanding late fees and other reports at ethics.ga.gov .