Common Cause calls for investigation of Georgia Ethics Commission's conflict of interest policies

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A good government group is calling on the Georgia Ethics Commission to investigate its own policies regarding how board members handle potential conflicts of interest.

The board oversees campaign finance reports filed by candidates and elected officials. 

Our I-Team has found one board member - who is a political strategist -  has voted on campaign finance cases involving his political clients.

Two weeks ago, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, known as the Ethics Commission, decided a case involving a local judicial candidate.

Greg Shenton ran for a spot on the Cobb County Superior Court bench. The Commission says he accepted a campaign contribution above about the legal limit. He agreed to pay a $120 civil penalty in a consent order

All the commissioners, including Rick Thompson, who runs a political strategy company called RTA Strategy, voted to accept the agreement.

But the FOX 5 I-Team has learned Greg Shenton was also a client of Commissioner Thompson. The case file, obtained by the I-team through an open Records request, showed Shenton hired Ethics Commissioner Rick Thompson and his partner prior to the state campaign complaint to help him file campaign reports.

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Thompson never said a word about his client when he voted.

Aunna Dennis is the director of good government watchdog group, Common Cause Georgia. She worries about the lack of transparency.

"It's definitely a problem.This challenges the integrity of our finance laws in Georgia," said Dennis.

Rick Thompson disagrees. He told me he didn't recuse himself because it was "not a contested issue." He called it a  "procedural agreement between both sides."  Thompson said he would "never recuse himself from discussion" of an item, so all Commission voices can be heard.

But there is more. Another case that same day was a complaint against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for accepting  $382,773 in campaign contributions above the legal limit. 

The commission and Rick Thompson voted to reset the hearing date.

Mayor Bottoms is also a client of Rick Thompson's company. She paid RTA Strategy $5,390 after a campaign complaint was filed against her. 

When Mayor Bottom's case was continued, Ethics Board chairman Jake Evans gave Thompson a chance to disclose that the Mayor was his client. 

Jake Evans: Commissioner Thompson do you have any thoughts?  You’ve been quiet over there today.

Thompson: No sir. 

Mayor Bottom’s campaign said they are working with Rick Thompson’s partner – not Thompson himself.

Thompson would not discuss what he did for the Mayor; he again said he didn't recuse himself because it was only a procedural vote. He told me he "would consider" recusing himself when the case is decided. 

"It is definiately troubling to hear he has not recused himself on these cases," said Dennis.

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Along with the two cases, the I-Team found a dozen candidates who’ve paid RTA Strategy a total of $113,802 since Thompson joined the Ethics board. The list includes State Representatives, State Senators, Judges and PACs. 

Only one, State Senate candidate Matt Reeves, has appeared before the commission.

Reeves agreed to a consent order last September. He also paid Commissioner Thompson’s company $8000 one month before his case came before the commission. Board minutes show Thompson did not recuse himself from voting.

Thompson says he has occasionally recused himself in other cases.

Thompson says he has recused himself in contested cases in the past and will consider recusing himself in uncontested cases in the future.

Aunna Dennis believes it is time to resolve the controversy. 

"It definitely diminishes the trust in our ethics board," said Dennis.

The rules for deciding when a board member should recuse themselves are confusing.  Board Chairman Jake Evans says Commission policy gives him the authority to order a board member to recuse himself. But, instead he follows  the Attorney General's 1989 opinion to let board members decide for themselves whether they have a conflict of interest.

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