Special Report: Transparency and Ethics (Part 1) - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Special Report: Transparency and Ethics (Part 1)

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If any candidate in Georgia -- elected or unelected -- was receiving questionable forms of income or campaign donations -- presumably you would find it here: Georgia's Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Until January 1st, candidates for governor all the way down to your local school board had to use their online portal to submit campaign contribution and personal financial disclosures to explain how they made their income in the past year, who gave them political campaign donations and how they spent that money.

But a quick search of the agency's electronic database for local names painted a dire picture of late submissions, thousands of dollars in fines and -- if the site was to believed -- widespread evasion of campaign finance laws.

Four of nine Chatham County commissioners with late fines or non-payment?

Six of nine Chatham County School Board members?

Eight out of nine city council members?

We took invoices to Savannah City Hall last week.

"Is this an actual invoice?" Alderman Tony Thomas asked. We told him you can print late and non-filing fine invoices directly from the commission web site. "Well good luck collecting!" he said.

The city council's response made it immediately clear that not everything we found online was what it seemed.

"This office was so dysfunctional that i could not get through by calling, e-mailing and writing. When I finally got through to them, I was finally told that my pin was registered to another elected official," Thomas said.

If it all seems unbelievable, the site would tell you that even Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap failed to report her income last year. Though we know how she made a living last year, a filed report would demonstrate that she had no financial conflicts of interest.

But the agency's web site says she has not filed that financial disclosure, even though it also says she paid a fine for submitting it late.

We could not believe that anyone would know to pay a late fee all while not knowing just what, in fact, was late. So to demonstrate, Heap showed us a screen capture of the system telling her no action was needed. But for good measure, she filed the report again this week.

The system accepted the new report in one section of the web site, but still does not reflect the new filing in another section of the web site.

Heap's is just one example of a system that should provide transparency to Georgians about their public officials and political candidates, but instead is a database not advanced enough to know that city alderman Tom Bordeaux might have a home address and a business address, or that County Commissioner Dean Kicklighter goes by his middle name or even simple typographical differences like a single space between the 'p' and the 'o' in the P.O. Box address in one of Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott's filings.

In each case, the database assumes there are two or even three different politicians -- apparently even some who live together.

Which leaves the whole system of transparency effectively useless.

The good news for the aldermen -- and so many other candidates and elected officials in our area that we stopped trying to count all of them -- is that tate lawmakers stepped in last year and changed the system. The changes they made rids local officials and candidates of the headache.

But here's the bad news if you care about the influence of money in politics: you now have to go farther and work harder to find this information.

And based on what we found, we cannot say with confidence that even if you do find something that there's anyone who can do anything about it.
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