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By Eric Stirgus October 26, 2010

Candidates spar over ethics claims

With double-digit unemployment and the economy as uncertain as the outcome of this weekend's matchup between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators, the two leading candidates for state labor commissioner are spending a good bit of time talking about ethics.

At issue: Who is more unethical?

Case in point, the Oct. 17 Atlanta Press Club debate.

The fireworks began with Democrat Darryl Hicks grilling Republican Mark Butler, a state representative, about whether he attempted to "strong-arm" a state university to rehire a lobbyist whom he dated.

"I never threatened nor strong-armed anybody to hire anybody back," Butler said.

Butler countered by asking Hicks about some information the representative spotted on the State Ethics Commission's website.

"I'd like for you to tell the people of Georgia about your seven ethics violations and your seven ethics fines, most of which you have not paid, dating all the way back to 2006," Butler said, referring to Hicks' failed 2006 bid for secretary of state.

"Now, Mark," Hicks said. "C'mon, folks can look that up and see that is not true."

"Look it up," Butler could be heard saying in the background.

We wanted to look into Butler's claim about Hicks, since it seemed more concrete than whether Butler inappropriately tried to help a lobbyist. You've either had ethics fines or not.

Butler led us to the website's late/nonfiler's reports. Hicks' name was there. Hicks was late in turning in his campaign contribution disclosure report, according to the site. The disclosure reports outline who gives a candidate money and how each candidate spent the funds.

"It's right there," Butler said.

Hicks, the former chief of staff to the chairman of the Fulton County Commission, lost the Aug. 8, 2006, Democratic Party runoff for secretary of state to Gail Buckner. He was late in filing disclosure reports from that campaign that were due on Sept. 30, 2006, and Oct. 25, 2006. We checked the Ethics Commission's website and Butler's name didn't appear. Butler's campaign disclosure reports show he filed them by the deadline.

Hicks told us he didn't realize he had to file disclosure reports with the state for the Sept. 30, 2006, and Oct. 25, 2006, due dates since he had lost. State records show some fines were paid in 2009, when Hicks said he received invoices from the state that he had not paid the late fees. Hicks paid $150 in fines last week to clear up other late disclosure reports.

Candidates are typically required to send disclosure reports to the state five times during the year of their campaign. The standard dates are March 31, June 30, Sept. 30, Oct. 25 and Dec. 31. Candidates have a grace period of five business days to deliver the reports to the state. Candidates who miss the deadline are required to pay "an additional filing fee" of $25, according to page 24 of the state Ethics in Government Act. The candidate must also pay a $50 "filing fee" if he or she is more than 15 days late, according to the state act.

The penalties and language are much tougher on lobbyists found guilty of improper actions. The ethics act says they can be hit with a $2,000 penalty for each "violation."

Ethics was a major topic during this year's legislative session as lawmakers passed a bill that broadens the authority of the Ethics Commission, tightens reporting requirements for lobbyists and legislators, increases the fines for violations, makes it a crime to use a state agency to attack someone and prohibits sexual harassment. State lawmakers were influenced by embarrassing headlines that surrounded the resignation of former House Speaker Glenn Richardson, who resigned last year after his ex-wife accused him of having an affair with a female lobbyist. Some lawmakers wanted the legislation, Senate Bill 17, to go further by restricting gifts from lobbyists.

We spoke with Hicks campaign spokeswoman Phyllis Fraley, who sent us a letter from her candidate to the commission. Hicks wrote that there were "clerical errors in the amount assessed" on the state's website and he thought the matter had been resolved. State Ethics Commission executive secretary Stacey Kalberman told us that all the fines have been paid.

Fraley accused Butler of blowing the matter out of proportion.

"It's interesting that while Mark is busy being dishonest by attacking Darryl's ethics over the most minor clerical error, Mark has managed to further expose his own serious moral and ethical lapses while he held office," she said.

Butler believes the issue is important. He told us he wouldn't have brought up the matter if Hicks had been late once or twice, but seven times is disturbing. Butler also said Hicks should have known he missed those deadlines in 2006.

"He's a habitual violator," Butler said.

Butler accused Hicks of misleading those who watched the Atlanta Press Club debate by saying it wasn't true he had ethics violations.

"He called me a liar over that fact," Butler said.

We discussed this with Common Cause Georgia executive director Bill Bozarth, one of the state's leading government ethics watchdogs. Bozarth said when he thinks of ethics violations, he considers something like a candidate who uses a contribution for inappropriate purposes or accepts a donation from a questionable source. Bozarth said he has seen some cases in which candidates who lost their race missed the deadline to hand in their disclosure reports, although the state's ethics laws do not give them a pass for being late because they lost.

So does this constitute an ethics violation?

"Technically, it is a violation, but in my opinion, not as serious as those flouting the law and using the [campaign] funds for inappropriate purposes," Bozarth told us.

We posed the same question to Kalberman, without mentioning the dispute between the two candidates about this issue.

"Technically, any time you don't file on time, it's an ethics violation," Kalberman said. "I would not consider it a serious violation of the ethics code."

Butler is technically correct that Hicks violated the ethics act. But his statement leaves out important details and context that could give voters a different impression. The ethics act is much tougher on other acts of improper conduct. We believe Butler's statement could give viewers the impression that Hicks committed ethical lapses along the lines of what was included in SB 17. Also, most of the fines were paid before last week. We rate Butler's claim against Hicks as Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Atlanta Press Club debate on Georgia Public Broadcasting, Oct. 17, 2010

E-mail from Darryl Hicks for Georgia 2010, Oct. 18, 2010

Georgia Ethics in Government Act

Senate Bill 17

Telephone interview with Mark Butler, Oct. 18 & 25, 2010

Telephone interview with State Ethics Commission executive secretary Stacey Kalberman, Oct. 21, 2010

Telephone interview with Common Cause Georgia executive director Bill Bozarth, Oct. 22, 2010

Telephone interview with Darryl Hicks and Phyllis Fraley, Oct. 25, 2010

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