Many Georgia leaders are ignoring campaign laws that require them to show where they are getting their money and how they are spending it. Some owe thousands to the state in late fines.
(WXIA) -- Lawmakers from every corner of metro Atlanta are ignoring the law designed to keep them honest.. It's called the Georgia Campaign Finance Act, and every elected leader from school board members to Senators are required to follow it.
By law, several times a year officials must file forms showing what money is coming in and going out of their campaigns. Those financial forms go the state ethics commission. When the agency doesn't get forms on time or at all, they stick leaders with a $125 fine. You wouldn't believe how many reports never get filed and fines never paid yet politicians remain in office.
TRACK YOUR LAWMAKER'S FINANCES: Search financial forms by lawmaker
"Are they violating the law?" asked 11Alive investigative reporter Catie Beck.
"Absolutely, no question about it," replied Kevin Abernathy, Chairman of the State Ethics Commission, the agency that enforces the campaign filing requirements.
Through an 11Alive investigation, we discovered those late fines have been adding up for area politicians like Walton County Commissioner Mark Banks, who we tracked down at the local golf course.
"Did you know that you owed $2,000?" Beck asked Banks.
"I did not. Well, I'll take a look at it and that's all I can tell you," replied Banks.
Banks claims that he doesn't do his own filings and says the state ethics commission often doesn't answer the phone.
"Do you take these things seriously -- you're an elected official, filing your forms on time?" said Beck.
"Yes, I'm sure it is serious or they wouldn't ask you to do it," said Banks.
"And that's why I'm asking why you didn't do it then," said Beck
"I told you I'll get back to you on it," said Banks.
A month later, Banks still hasn't gotten back to us, but we had others with outstanding fines to track down, like Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young, who owes $1,500 in late fees to the state ethics commission.
Young claims he's not sure how much he owes, but that he plans to settle whatever debt he has with the commission. Young owes fees dating back to 2003 and has added new ones in almost every year since. He claims he's had some challenges.
"Most recently the treasurer of my campaign committee had a stroke, and in the past year I'm a cancer survivor," said Young.
Even the ethics commission admits its own challenges. The chairman says the agency hasn't been aggressive enough in collecting fines and holding leaders accountable. Many of the amounts owed by politicians would be thousands more if the commission followed their own rules for penalties. That's money that could be going back to state..to improve schools or improve roads.
"I appreciate you bring this to our attention, I think this is a scenario where everybody can do better, us included," said Abernathy.
However, some state lawmakers weren't as grateful for the reminder. We showed Senator Donzella James the commission's records on her 6 late filings, and one that was never filed at all.
"You owe more than $800," said Beck.
"No, I don't owe anything," said James.
James admits she has had some trouble getting filing in on time in the past.
"These dates, you're saying all of these dates are inaccurate," said Beck.
"I'm saying I don't owe them anything, in the past I have had some that were late," said James.
James abruptly ended our conversation when one of her staffers attempted to move her out of the interview.
"I'm not getting pushed out of the interview, I just have to get to a meeting," she said.
A conversation has started among ethics commissioners about why too many elected leaders are taking transparency laws too lightly. 11Alive plans to hold them accountable.
"Your assessment of the information and reading of it is absolutely correct," said Abernathy.
CONTACT THE LAWMAKERS IN OUR STORY:
Donzella James: Donzella.email@example.com
Mark Banks: Mark.firstname.lastname@example.org
Ivory Young: email@example.com
Michael Bond: firstname.lastname@example.org
Extended interview with state lawmaker Donzella James
Extended interview with state lawmaker Mark Banks
Extended interview with state lawmaker Ivory Young
Extended interview with state lawmaker Michael Bond