By Michael Davis
The state Ethics Commission accepted consent orders Friday settling a 2004 complaint against a political action committee led by former Henry County Chairman Leland Maddox set up to help sitting Chairman Jason Harper get elected.
Through an attorney, Maddox and Harper each agreed to pay $1,000 in fines for not reporting expenses incurred during a $3,900-mailing effort critical of Harper's opponents in last July's primary election. Harper agreed to pay $1,900 from his campaign funds to reimburse the Citizen's League of Henry County, which paid a portion of the cost of the campaign mailings.
Harper was found to have researched and gathered materials for the mailings, which at $3,900, exceeded the $2,000 contribution limit. He agreed to pay an $800 fine from personal funds for accepting the contribution. He will also pay a $200 fine from personal funds for not reporting it.
Harper, who did not attend the hearing Friday, said by telephone that he did not believe he had to report the expense for the mailings because they did not directly endorse his candidacy in last year's election. "I had no clue, because it did not say 'vote for me' that I had to report it," he said.
Harper also agreed to pay the PAC $1,900 from his campaign funds as a reimbursement for the amount exceeding the $2,000 contribution cap, money apparently paid initially by Harper's father to the company that printed the mail-outs.
Maddox will pay $1,000 for not registering the PAC, accepting an anonymous contribution and making a contribution of more than the Ethics in Government Act allows.
"The big secret was that it was the candidate's (Harper's) father who provided the money" said Robert S. Highsmith Jr., an attorney representing Harper and Maddox who was retained two days before Friday's hearing was scheduled and once served on the Ethics Commission.
Maddox, in a telephone interview, as he had in the past, chalked the PAC's violations up to sloppy book-keeping and ignorance of reporting and registration requirements. "Part of the expense, we did not even know about," he said of the $1,900 paid by Harper's father. "I did not ask and didn't probe a lot. As long as it was paid, why should I?" he said. He maintains the PAC filled out what it thought were the correct registration forms.
The original complaint was filed against the PAC last August by former Henry Commissioner Gary Freedman, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Chairman and was a target in the mail-out campaign. Freedman often clashed with then-Chairman Maddox when the two sat on the Board of Commissioners and Maddox openly supported Harper in his campaign for the seat.
Freedman, who asked to address the Ethics Commission Friday before it accepted the consent order settling the case, said the order "short-circuits the full disclosure" of the PAC's activities that would have come out during a hearing.
"It is my hope and prayer that the citizens and the elected officials of Henry County will take notice that unethical and illegal behavior will not be tolerated by the law, by the code of ethics or by the citizens," he said.
Maddox thinks the complaint was spurred by dissatisfaction with the outcome of the primary.
"I think it's ridiculous a man can get into a contested race and lose and have to go to this extent to satisfy himself," he said.