Longtime Fulton Co. official corrects campaign filings after Channel 2 investigation

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — When we first approached longtime Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards to ask how nearly $80,000 in political donations vanished from his campaign paperwork, he denied there was even a problem.

"I take issue with the word discrepancy. As far as I'm concerned I don't have a discrepancy," Edwards told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.

Now, a month later, he has filed six corrected reports to amend his earlier filings from 2008, 2009, and part of 2010.

The Records

Edwards' original campaign records show the money in question was listed in campaign disclosures he filed in June 2010, but gone in his next filing in September 2010, with no campaign expenses listed to explain why.

"It's kind of hard to miss $80,000," said Edwards, adding that he did not even have signing authority on the checks for that account. He says he's confident his treasurer and campaign staff would not have misspent money either.

"My campaign treasurer, you can't get a dime from her without a receipt," said Edwards.

Edwards provided us several years’ worth of bank statements, suggesting they would explain everything.

"When you put the money in the bank and you spend money and you reconcile your bank account, you know it's supposed to work so we're saying it works," said Edwards.

Instead, his bank statements raised even more questions.

The records are riddled with discrepancies, specifically spending reflected in his bank account but not on campaign filings, and vice versa.

The bank statements also show Edwards routinely had tens of thousands of dollars less in the bank than he reported on each of his campaign disclosures filed at the time, which would indicate they were not actively being reconciled.

The Results

Following our February interview, Edwards hired an auditor to review his campaign filings and bank accounts. He now says the whole thing was an accounting mistake.

He says his campaign treasurer must have caught it in September 2010 and changed the numbers, which is the discrepancy we noted. At the time, no notation was made regarding the correction, and no amended reports were filed to correct the prior six filings.

This past Friday, in anticipation of this news story, Edwards filed the six corrections for two and a half years' worth of campaign reports.

He has yet to provide a copy of the year-end 2007 campaign disclosure document which he says reflects the original error.

The Research

The error in Edwards' 2010 records was initially caught by Ciara Frisbie a Georgia State University student who is studying to be an investigative reporter.

Frisbie had never looked at campaign filings before, but noticed Edwards' numbers didn't add up.

"It was right there on the documents, it was easy to add and subtract," Frisbie said.

Frisbie is participating in Georgia News Lab, a collaborative initiative for students from five local universities, working in conjunction with WSB-TV and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"The amount of money is quite ridiculous to go unnoticed," Frisbie said.

The Responsibility

Edwards was surprised to learn no one from the state noticed the discrepancies.

"I just assume, as an elected official, that when you submit a document, that somebody is going to look at it to verify that what we're saying is true," said Edwards.

In fact, the state ethics commission confirms it historically only audited filings based on complaints the agency received. That means the bulk of the 12,000 plus reports filed each year were never reviewed.

"The fact that a college student found this really underscores that it's not hard to catch, it's just nobody is really looking at all of them," said William Perry, director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group.

In December 2014, the state ethics commission directed staff to try to audit 5 percent of all of the campaign filings going forward, in an effort to keep candidates from lying or making mistakes.

The Reason?

Common Cause Georgia has pushed to require candidates to file a bank statement with their campaign disclosures to keep them honest.

Perry says it's a common political trick to pad campaign filings to make it look like a candidate has more money on-hand, and scare off potential opponents.

"I think it's a huge concern for regular citizens even though we are not dealing with taxpayer dollars, we are talking about potential fraud," said Perry.

Edwards' discrepancies showed up during a re-election bid in which he had no opponent. He says he did not pad his campaign filings, but could not offer any other explanation as to why his bank statements consistently reflected amounts lower than his campaign reports.

Even after making the adjustment for Edwards' accounting mistake, his campaign filings still reflect between $10,000 and $14,000 more on paper, than what was actually in his bank account.

Perry says that could be misleading to a would-be opponent or the public.

"That's a huge problem, and I think that sloppy record keeping or if it's intentional, either way, the public's getting robbed out of an election," Perry said.