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By Eric Stirgus June 1, 2012

Car repair bill catches eye in Cobb chairman's race

Cobb County politics is much like the onetime hit television sitcom "Cheers."

Everyone knows your name in the Boston bar, and there are few things that occur that go unnoticed.

For example, the county government’s commission chairman, Tim Lee, seemed to have the scoop on Bill Byrne, the man who once had that job and wants it back.

In a recent Marietta Daily Journal "Around Town" political column, Lee appeared to question Byrne’s campaign ethics.

"I have not paid to have my personal car worked on with campaign funds like some other candidates," Lee said.

Lee didn’t refer to Byrne by name, but the inference seemed obvious. PolitiFact Georgia wanted to see if Lee was engaging in some campaign fact twisting or did he deserve a toast for telling the truth?

Cobb is Georgia’s fourth highest-populated county. The Cobb chairman is an influential perch for deciding policy on public safety, transportation and water resources. Cobb is also a treasure-trove of Republican votes. Lee’s predecessor, Sam Olens, a Republican, is now Georgia’s attorney general.

As the headline to the article suggested, the race for county chairman -- arguably one of the most powerful local government posts in Georgia -- is heating up. Earlier in the column, Byrne suggested that Lee would not achieve his fundraising goals. Lee countered that he was on track to raise his previously stated target of at least $200,000 and said he spent money on legitimate campaign expenses -- unlike an unnamed opponent.

We tried to contact Lee a couple of times in recent weeks, leaving messages on a telephone number the chairman listed on his candidate campaign disclosure forms filed with the state. We received no reply. PolitiFact Georgia also called the county government’s communications director and explained the article we were reporting. No reply.

PolitiFact Georgia caught up with Lee at a candidate forum Wednesday organized by the East Cobb Civic Association at the East Cobb Library. The chairman told PolitiFact Georgia that he read Byrne’s most recent candidate disclosure report, which mentioned money spent on a vehicle, and decided to talk about it to The Marietta Daily Journal. Lee said he considered it an old matter in a brief interview before Wednesday’s forum and declined further comment.

So what did the report show?

On Jan. 31, 2012, Byrne reported he spent $209.78 on "servicing campaign truck." Byrne told PolitiFact Georgia he used the money to pay for a tuneup and repair a brake line. Byrne said he uses a 2008 red GMC pickup truck that he owns for campaign purposes. Byrne is an old-school campaigner, who said he drives around the county to spread his message.

Byrne sent PolitiFact Georgia a photo of the vehicle, which had a campaign sign attached to the passenger’s door and a large campaign sign in the truck bed. The vehicle was parked in front of Byrne’s campaign office in Marietta. The truck was parked in the lot outside the East Cobb Library on Wednesday.

"It’s a campaign vehicle," Byrne said in one telephone interview.

We asked Byrne what he thought about Lee’s initial comment.

"He has the right to say anything he wants, and I have the right to respond," Byrne told us.

Georgia’s campaign finance act has no specific language about funding vehicle repairs with campaign funds. The law advises candidates to spend on necessary campaign purposes. William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, an ethics watchdog group, said the law is vague on such spending.

Perry told us the repairs could be legitimate if Byrne needs the vehicle for campaign purposes, and if the candidate is not attempting to get reimbursed for the mileage he is driving for the campaign. Otherwise, Perry said it could be "double-dipping" by Byrne.

It is true that the vehicle belongs to Byrne. It is also true that Byrne used campaign funds to pay for repairs on the truck. Byrne does seem to be using the vehicle for campaign purposes, which the candidate said in his disclosure report. Lee did not mention that when he was quoted in the column.

That context is critical for readers to fully understand the chairman’s statement.

We give this one a rating of Half True.

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Our Sources

The Marietta Daily Journal, "Around Town: War of Words; Race for county chairman starting to heat up," April 10, 2012

Bill Byrne candidate campaign disclosure report, March 31, 2012

Georgia Campaign Finance Act of 2010

Interview with Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, May 30, 2012

Telephone interviews with Bill Byrne, April 17 and May 18, 2012

Telephone interview with Common Cause Georgia executive director William Perry, May 31, 2012

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Car repair bill catches eye in Cobb chairman's race

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