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Marietta Daily Journal

Cobb ethics board dismisses complaint against Jerica Richardson

By hriggallHunter Riggall hriggall@mdjonline.comHunter Riggall,

2023-03-13
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Cobb Commissioner Jerica Richardson, left, and attorney Justin O’Dell, at a meeting of the Cobb Board of Ethics Monday. Hunter Riggall

MARIETTA — The Cobb County Board of Ethics voted unanimously Monday to dismiss an ethics complaint filed by an east Cobb resident against Commissioner Jerica Richardson.

The vote was 6-0. The board has seven seats, but one, appointed by the solicitor general, is vacant.

Debbie Fisher’s complaint accused Richardson of violating county rules in voting twice last year to support the county’s home rule redistricting effort, which is aimed at redrawing the commission district boundaries to keep Richardson in office.

Fisher also took aim at a political group — For Which It Stance — created last year by Richardson and east Cobb’s Mindy Seger to support her bid to keep her seat. Richardson’s interest in the group, Fisher argued, created a financial conflict of interest.

Fisher’s complaint

Fisher, a former Cobb GOP officer, filed the complaint in January, alleging Richardson, a Democrat, violated county rules when she voted for the home rule map that the Board of Commissioners is attempting to assert. She requested that Richardson’s votes be voided, which would retroactively make the resolutions 2-2 votes, rather than 3-2 votes.

“I believe she is personally gaining, because if not for the resolution, according to the attorney for Cobb County … if it weren’t for the home rule resolution, she would not be in office,” Fisher told the ethics board.

For Which It Stance was formed in March 2022, about five weeks after the Republican-sponsored district map which drew Richardson out of her seat was filed in the General Assembly. Richardson is listed as the nonprofit’s registered agent, while Seger is its executive director.

Fisher provided screenshots of the group’s website (forwhichitstance.com), where the group solicits donations and sells tiered membership levels (ranging from $25 to $100 per month). The site advertises “Special Access to Elected Officials and Other Opportunities” as a benefit of membership, which Fisher alleged is a “pay to play” system.

The group also sells branded merchandise such as pins, mugs, tote bags and $40 T-shirts bearing slogans such as “there’s no place like home rule.”

“This organization creates a conflict of interest, a direct and indirect financial benefit,” Fisher said. “Its existence gives the appearance of impropriety, and it is evident that Commissioner Richardson is using her position as an elected official for private gain by selling favors, merchandise, and giving preferential treatment by selling access and favor to the organization’s members.”

Richardson’s response

Richardson was present at the meeting, but represented by Marietta attorney Justin O’Dell. He argued that Fisher was trying to get the ethics board to “make an end run around the judicial process” by canceling the home rule resolution votes, instead of letting the issue play out in the courts.

“What they’re basically saying is, because the home rule map passed by the county keeps her in office, she has an interest in passing that map,” O’Dell told the board. “Well, so do all of them (the commissioners).”

He went on to point out that in nearly every Georgia county, local commissioners advanced a map to the Georgia General Assembly through the local legislation process. They all had an interest in supporting a map that keeps them in office, he said.

As to the financial aspect, O’Dell said that For Which It Stance is registered as a nonprofit with the state, while the county code says that commissioners cannot use their positions to benefit for-profit organizations.

He went on to say that the group functions no differently than a local political party, which also solicits, sells merchandise and memberships, provides access to officials, and helps candidates get elected.

“They all have membership levels,” O’Dell said. “They all sell you that you can come to a breakfast on Saturday morning, and shake hands with, ‘Look at all these elected officials that are coming to talk at our breakfast, and if you’re a $500 member, you get to sit here.’”

Decision and appeal

In order for the complaint to move forward to a public hearing, the board had to find “specific, substantiated evidence from a credible source” to support a reasonable belief that an ethics violation occurred.

“The word here for me is optics, that I’m going to use. … We don’t have any evidence that Ms. Richardson has profit, but we don’t have evidence that she didn’t either,” said board member Cynthia Ann Smith.

Board Chair Carlos Rodriguez said the county code of ethics does not preclude officials from having other employment or affiliations, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their duties.

“I don’t see this as really any different than if a public officer also served as a senior pastor,” Rodriguez said. “Where they promoted their church in that capacity, solicited membership and contributions to their church. Or an officer’s leadership in Rotary or Kiwanis, or promoted participation and contributions to MUST Ministries. Those memberships aren’t per se conflicts of interests.”

Rodriguez also said that any vote taken by a commissioner to please their constituents could be seen as wrongly benefiting them personally, under Fisher’s logic.

Fisher has 30 days to appeal to the Cobb County Superior Court, board attorney Lynn Rainey said.

After the hearing, Fisher told the MDJ she was considering an appeal, believing the board did not consider the part of the code that says commissioners should avoid “the appearance of impropriety.”

Richardson, meanwhile, said she was glad to see the board dismiss the complaint.

“I appreciate the systems that we have in place, and certainly appreciate the attention and care that all members of the community have expressed with regards to this issue,” she said. “I’m certainly grateful for the outcome of this hearing.”

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