A Channel 2 investigation has uncovered that Georgia lobbyists owe the state nearly $2 million in unpaid fines.
Investigative reporter Aaron Diamant spent weeks crunching the numbers to determine who owes the state the most money and why state officials cannot force them to pay.
Georgia requires that lobbyists report every penny spent on lawmakers, and they are fined if they miss deadlines.
The fines can rack up fast and often go unpaid.
Lobbyists shell out millions of dollars on meals and other gifts to influence state lawmakers. House Speaker David Ralston told Diamante that state disclosure laws for lobbyists are more than enough to keep the financial free-for-all clean.
“I think openness and transparency is a good disinfectant,” Ralston said.
Current laws require that all spending on lawmakers is reported on a strict deadline.
“Georgians deserve to know about who’s spending money on every one of us, and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” Ralston said.
But the law only works when lobbyists play by the rules, and the watchdogs at Common Cause Georgia said that is not the case.
“In this case, the disinfectant is not killing the germs,” William Perry of Common Cause said.
The transparency commission hits lobbyists who do not file disclosure reports, or file them late, with fines that add up quickly.
Diamante spent days crunching the numbers provided by the commission and found that 149, around one in six active lobbyists, owe a total of $428,000 in unpaid fines.
Topping the list is Ruben Brown. He represents the American Red Cross and has $125,000 in unpaid fines.
Brown told Diamant he was surprised by the figure and said the 13 recent reports he failed to file on time were an oversight.
The American Cancer Society’s chief lobbyist, John Daniel, owes more than $47,000.
“There no excuse. We’re trying to – we screwed up. He screwed up and we’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” ACS attorney Sheffield Hale said.
When unpaid fines by former lobbyists are added into the mix, the total jumps to $1.7 million. The largest chunk, more than $360,000, is owed by Eugene Lee McCord, who supposedly represented the tiny European republic of Moldova. He never returned calls from Diamante, and the address he provided to the state has been abandoned.
The transparency commission’s new chairman, Ken Abernathy, said the board is bound by state law, which sets the fines, but does not spell out any specific way to collect them.
“It’s a challenging situation. There’s no question about that,” Abernathy said.
“Imagine getting a parking ticket, knowing that nobody will ever come after you to collect it. How many parking tickets would you rack up if you knew nobody could enforce the fines?” Perry said.
House ethics committee chairman Joe Wilkinson is sponsoring and promising to fight for a bill giving the commission more money and more power to go after lobbyists.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to see that this ends,” Wilkinson said.
The lobbyist for the American Red Cross and the attorney for the American Cancer Society both said they have asked the commission to waive their fines since the reports eventually filed showed no spending. The commission could not provide a total number of waive requests received, but the chairman said the board will eventually review each request in order to resolve the fines fairly.