Special Report: Ethics and Transparency (Part 2) - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Special Report: Ethics and Transparency (Part 2)

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SAVANNAH, GA - When we discovered eight of the nine members of the Savannah City Council -- including the mayor -- had thousands of dollars in fines due to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, we got of a host of complaints about a reporting system local lawmakers called broken from the start.

"Let me tell you this: good luck in collecting this, because I intend not to pay any dime of this, because I followed all of the laws," said Savannah Alderman Tony Thomas.

In fact, none of the city alderman knew about the fines because the head of the state agency posting them admitted they had not sent notices.

"There have been no certified notices sent in regards to late or non-filed reports," said Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge.

News 3 found problems so widespread, its no wonder the non-partisan Georgia Municipal Association -- the lobbying group who represents city councils at the capitol in Atlanta -- pushed for changes to the system.

But it is hard to call the changes to the system actual solutions.

First, local candidates and elected leaders will now file the same reports with their local clerk, which sounds like a simple solution until you consider Georgia has 159 counties and more than 500 municipalities. That's many hundreds of times more authorities than one state agency should have provided.

Alderman Thomas disagrees.

"We have a clerk of council. Any citizen in this community ... can walk into that office and request that information and the clerk of council can provide this information," Thomas said.

We put this point to a test: Chatham County voters will elect a new school board president on May 20th, which means those candidates should already be filing campaign finance documents.

What we found at the Chatham County level was somewhat heartening. They have set up their own electronic database accessible online, though Chatham County taxpayers had to pay for this redundant system. They are the only county in our 17-county coverage area thus far to use this program.

But it is not compatible with the state's.

"It was designed without our buy-in and working with them. So all those files that are being submitted on Georgia EasyFile cannot be posted on our web site," LaBerge said.

While we paid (again) to keep transparency in the 21st Century in Chatham County, the way they must submit these reports to the state commission is right out of the 1990's. Poor Lynn Trabue at the Chatham County Elections Board stands over a fax machine and submits these electronically-filed transparency reports to the state commission by fax.

One at a time.

Weeks after the deadline, there is no sign of them on the state web site.     

"It was much more complicated than what we originally at first blush thought it was going to be -- taking an e-fax form and putting it on our web site. We can just stick them on our web site, but it wouldn't be searchable. Which doesn't do anyone any good," LaBerge said.

But perhaps worst of all: this state commission is effectively powerless to do anything about campaign finance or ethics violations by local candidates or office holders. Each local clerk or elections board -- hundreds of them -- will handle any fines from 2014 on.

All those old fines? LaBerge admitted they physically can't do much about them.

"The problem now is just the sheer lack of time to get it done," LaBerge said.

Then there is the turmoil within the office of just 11 positions, two of which are unfilled.

LaBerge, who up until 2006 stocked shelves at Ann Taylor LOFT clothing store, now runs the agency after their former executive director, Stacey Kalberman, was fired after she drafted subpoenas to investigate Gov. Nathan Deal for campaign finance violations. A Georgia jury just this month called her firing retaliation and awarded her $700,000.

What can the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission actually do?

They could still go to every corner of the state to file lawsuits in 42 superior court circuits against non-compliers in all 159 counties and 500-plus municipalities.

Having a staff attorney might help with that effort. She was fired in January for being drunk on the job.

Still, LaBerge would not address our question on whether the system -- and her agency -- was dysfunctional.

"It depends on your definition of dysfunctional," she said. "I can't say that it is, or no that it is not."

One local official we spoke to believes this new system of transparency is actually government dysfunction by design: a system that makes you go farther and work harder to follow the money to your local public officials.

And little you could do about it even if you found something.
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