Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Labor commissioner hopeful Butler accused of trying to "bully" educators

An ad in the race for Labor Commissioner accuses a candidate of bullying educators

We've heard a lot of name-calling and accusations this political season.

Democrat Darryl Hicks added a word to the lexicon in a recent commercial about his main rival, Republican Mark Butler, in the race for Georgia labor commissioner.

Bully.

"Mark Butler has tried to bully Georgia educators and now he's trying to bully Georgia voters," Hicks said.

So what is Hicks talking about? Hicks has accused Butler, a former state representative, of trying to "strong-arm" University of West Georgia officials into rehiring a woman he dated.

"I never threatened nor strong-armed anybody to hire anybody back," Butler said during an Oct. 17 Atlanta Press Club debate.

Butler, of Carroll County, served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2003 to earlier this year, when he resigned to run for labor commissioner. The controversy began last year. Butler, who was not married, had a two-year relationship with  a registered university lobbyist. The two are no longer dating and were not seeing each other when the controversy began, Butler campaign officials said. Butler said he met with university officials at a luncheon in July 2009 and was assured Henderson would remain in her position and that there would not be any major changes in her department.

Three weeks later, Henderson's position was eliminated.

Butler said the university called him to discuss the issue. According to the Times-Georgian newspaper, Butler talked to Michael Ruffner, the university's vice president of university advancement. Ruffner was not available, but Butler left a message that "Dr. Ruffner had p----d off the whole political party" by letting Henderson go. "This includes speaker of the house, rules chairman and senate," Ruffner's secretary quoted Butler, according to the newspaper.

Butler, the secretary wrote, told Ruffner to "kiss my a--."

"(Butler) said 'how can (Ruffner) sit across from him at lunch a few weeks ago and say he's not going to make any changes and then fire Erin,' " Butler reportedly said.

The Hicks camp sees what happened here as pure intimidation and an ethical lapse by on Butler's part. They cite the Times-Georgian's article that Butler filed an open records request of the university's salary chart before and after Henderson was fired as evidence that Butler tried to "bully" the administration. They point to the telephone call by Butler as further evidence of his bullying.

"Butler would like to play down the entire matter but he ought to be held accountable for his inappropriate actions and not allowed to deny what is fact," said Hicks campaign manager Verna Cleveland. "He was an elected official and to characterize his actions here as lapses in judgment, ethics and morals is, frankly, kind."

However, there's no evidence that's been unearthed that Butler said keep Henderson on the university payroll or else.

"We don't have the bullet, but we do have the smoking gun," said Hicks campaign spokeswoman Phyllis Fraley.

Butler insists that he did nothing wrong. Butler said university officials misled him about Henderson's future at the school. The school said it would be an ethical breach to discuss personnel decisions with Butler beforehand.
 
Butler said he talked to Ruffner's office because he heard from many people at the state Capitol who were concerned about what happened to Henderson.

"Rep Butler has never threatened any educator anywhere in Georgia or any other state," Butler told us in an e-mail.

But what about attempting to get a copy of the university's salary chart? Butler said he routinely searched for such information because of his role as a vice chairman of the house appropriations committee.

We discussed this situation without naming names with Georgia State University professor Harvey Newman, who helped put together a report last year for the influential Atlanta Committee for Progress that recommended the city of Atlanta expand its ethics guidelines. Newman said it was an ethical lapse by Butler because his position as a state lawmaker could influence the university.

"I think it is inappropriate because (Butler) is in a role that an ordinary person would not have," he said.

The Hicks campaign admits they don't have a smoking gun, but say there's plenty of circumstantial evidence. We agree there's information that raises concerns about Butler. But PolitiFact Georgia  could not find enough evidence to justify a call on the Truth-O-Meter.  We leave this one unrated.