Holey moley, you never know where these simple inquiries will lead.
I got a copy of the correspondence the Georgia State Ethics Commission issued on Elaine Kilgore’s official complaint filed against city council candidate Victor Painter of Peachtree City. Surprisingly, the response to the complaint, dated September 21, 2023, was a mere two sentences, basically saying the Deputy Executive Director “rejected” the claim and stated it “fails to allege a violation of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Act.”
The measly response triggered more questions than answers in my mind. There was no mention of the circumstances concerning the candidate’s submitting an incomplete and inaccurate document. There was no mention of how Painter could remedy the situation to bring his official paperwork into compliance.
The official complaint revolved around Painter’s submission of his Declaration of Intention to Accept Campaign Contributions (also known as DOI) form. The DOI form is the absolute starting point for any campaign in Georgia. You cannot have a campaign expending funds of any kind in Georgia without first submitting a DOI form. It’s an important document and every candidate needs to complete one to begin a campaign.
Elections are serious business, and the fate of the specific constituency revolves around the state’s ability to adequately handle the election process in a fair and lawful manner.
It stuck in my craw.
After 20-odd years of reviewing state and local elections documents, I cannot recall ever seeing such a wholly inaccurate and incomplete DOI form submitted and signature certified as “complete, true, and accurate.”
I decided to propose some follow-up questions to the State Ethics Commission on a few points that worried me about their response. It alarmed me that the more answers I received, the more puzzling and upsetting the matter became.
Forget about Painter and his mental and physical state when he attempted to complete the DOI form, leaving it incomplete and inaccurate most of the way through, not able to provide a full name, full address, the office he was running for, the actual year of the election, and then certifying it was all complete, true and accurate. That is between Painter, God, and the voters. I am perplexed by the State Ethics Commission.
The DOI form clearly states in all capital letters that “INCOMPLETE FORMS WILL NOT BE PROCESSED,” and it demands a candidate signature certification for completeness, truthfulness, and accuracy. So how does an inept submission like Painter’s on such a pivotal campaign form make it through the process and the Deputy Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission actually defends it? Something is very wrong.
If that feeble and ridiculous submission meets the state’s standards, can we believe the state is handling the election process in a fair and lawful manner? That’s doubtful.
Yes, I have questions.
I first took my questions to the media liaison at the State Ethics Commission. She was very friendly and attempted to help understand the chain of accountability regarding all the state forms a candidate must submit over time.
The media liaison told me that the candidates are responsible for what they do or do not write on the forms. She also told me that the State Ethics Commission is the authority responsible for ensuring that the candidates’ forms are complete and accurate.
Keep in mind that there are 535 cities and 159 counties in Georgia and that’s a lot of forms to track. I was told challenges to the documents of candidates by the public are what activate a thorough review of a specific candidate’s forms.
Once the ruling from the Deputy Executive Director on Kilgore’s complaint landed, I got back in touch with the media liaison. I began asking a series of questions as to how such a poor job of filling out a relatively simple document could be considered valid. This was the crux of Elaine Kilgore’s complaint.
Kilgore’s assertion was Painter’s DOI form did not meet the minimum criteria as cited by the state. If that was the case and Painter’s DOI form was invalid, then there is a potential ethics violation subject to a penalty for expending campaign funds prior to having a complete and accurate DOI form.
Good answers were hard to come by. The media liaison told me she would have one of the commission’s attorneys call me back.
It gets really twisted here.
I never got a call from one of the commission’s attorneys. The next morning, I sent an email to the Deputy Executive Director asking seven questions. His reply was alarming and got my mind racing.
I asked him who is ultimately accountable for a candidate’s submission of a DOI form, and the information provided on the form. He blamed the City Clerk of Peachtree City, saying, “Whether or not they [City Clerk’s office] accept the DOI is in their discretion.” He claimed in defense of his ruling, “The candidate filed a DOI and it was accepted by the local filing officer.”
We are forced to conclude that you can omit data or falsify data on the official state form to run for elected office and as long as the City Clerk takes the form as the state mandates and the DOI form is accepted no questions asked, according to the Deputy Executive Director. That’s faulty logic, indeed.
The deflection was surprising.
After reviewing the code references he sent me, I pointed out to him that, “I did not see any language stating that the local elections official is responsible for the content on the state’s DOI or making a determination on completeness, accuracy, or truthfulness which is what I was told by your media representative. Furthermore, I do not see any language granting the local election official any type of ‘discretion’ on accepting a DOI form or not.”
The Deputy Executive Director repeated that the complaint was rejected because the DOI was accepted by the local filing officer. The state mandates the City Clerk to work as a conduit for distributing the state’s forms and transmitting the candidates’ forms to the State Ethics Commission by the state’s prescribed schedule.
I posed the accountability question to Peachtree City’s City Clerk Yasmin Julio. She rightly contends they are not responsible for verifying the information on the form. In fact, she quoted, “The Rules and Regulations of the State of Georgia Department 189 Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission state, ‘local filing entities and their staff shall not give advice or opinions in connection with any assistance provided to local filers, nor shall the local filing entities assist filers with the completion of the filings unless such assistance is only clerical in nature.’”
Julio confirmed what the commission’s media liaison had stated before, “This office simply receives the forms and forwards them to the state office.”
So, what is the Deputy Executive Director hiding? Why would he place the blame on our City Clerk for his allowing a totally inadequate DOI form, incomplete, inaccurate, and untruthful, to stand?
It’s clear his office is responsible for enforcing confirmation of the data on the form, and the document reads in all capital letters, “INCOMPLETE FORMS WILL NOT BE PROCESSED.”
Full-court press at this point.
When I asked, “Who does state law designate as the entity to ‘process’ the form,” there was no direct reply to the question.
When I asked, “What specifically does the law require regarding the responsibility of the state in relation to their documents being returned complete, truthful, and accurate,” there was no direct reply to the question.
When I asked, “What is your state’s definition of ‘incomplete’ and ‘processed’ as cited on the DOI form,” there was no direct reply to the question.
When I asked, “Why would the state go to the trouble of stating ‘incomplete forms will not be processed’ if incomplete forms are processed,” there was no direct reply to the question.
When I asked, “In your official opinion, would the official acceptance of a form for official state use where nearly every facet of the form is incomplete or inaccurate and untruthful on the certification signature statement be considered normal standard practice,” there was no direct reply to the question.
The Deputy Executive Director tried another deflection, feigning being above the state’s regulations saying, “As far as the complaint goes in this case, the commission guards against being used as a political football or political weapon.” So, I asked, “Are [you] stating the complaint, no. 23-0040-C is a political football or political weapon and the claims were unfounded?” He refused to reply to the question.
I followed up with, “Since you made the statement on “political football” and “political weapon,” it’s a legitimate question to ask you as you rendered the official ruling is that the foundation of your decision regardless of the inaccurate and incomplete DOI form from Mr. Painter?” He refused to answer the question.
What are we to conclude?
The last comment the Deputy Executive Director would offer was, “This complaint was rejected because the DOI was accepted by the local filing officer and compliant with what was statutorily required to be filed, as such, no violations existed. I will have no further comment on this matter.”
This is why people distrust the government and worry about the legitimacy of our elections. Certainly, in this case, none of the regulations and written criteria mattered and the ruling was purely subjective, which is dangerous.
According to the City Clerk of Peachtree City, “They [State Ethics Commission] also shared no concerns relating to his [Painter’s] completed form.” In other words, the commission is totally fine with the heavily flawed document on file and refuses to ask the candidate to refile a complete, accurate, and truthful submission.
I am guessing if the commission did ask Painter to refile a new compliant DOI form it would be akin to admitting they screwed-up on the subjective ethics ruling.
As the City Clerk pointed out, submitting a form to the clerk’s office for transmission to the commission as mandated by the state is no basis for rejecting the ethics complaint filed against candidate Victor Painter.
Why would the Deputy Executive Director feel compelled to deflect the blame for his actions?
How in the world could the Deputy Executive Director claim a mandatory form where nearly every facet of the form was incomplete or inaccurate and untruthful with a false certification signature statement by the candidate is in compliance?
Was the Deputy Executive Director unduly intimidated by political factions within Fayette County, pressuring him to reject the claim and not allow it to go to the whole State Ethics Commission for a hearing? The local Plan for PTC political action group has strong ties to politically connected developers and former state legislators — did they put in a call?
If the State Ethics Commission allows such a totally noncompliant candidate form to pass, what else are they allowing to get a free pass?
Again, candidate Victor Painter is going to have to explain to the voters why he cannot fill out a simple state document with basic information and then lie by certifying it’s all complete and accurate. I am worried more about the competency and integrity of the State Ethics Commission.
If the State Ethics Commission is corrupted, our city, county, and state elections could be in jeopardy. Without honest and effective enforcement, Georgia could sink like other states.
Do your duty, vote.
Early voting is from October 16 to November 3, and Election Day is November 7.
Stay tuned to The Citizen website for more information on the candidates each week.
Peachtree City, Ga.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners.]