By Joel Hall
Clayton County Solicitor General Tasha Mosley has cleared Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin of obstruction charges related to a July 9 arrest, after Baskin refused to surrender two take-home vehicles to Clayton County police.
Mosley ruled that the two cars were purchased out of the Tax Commissioner's budget, and, therefore, are the property of the Tax Commissioner's office, making the Clayton County Board of Commissioners' attempt to repossess the vehicles an "illegitimate" action.
Mosley said paperwork to administratively dismiss the charges was filed in Clayton County State Court on Tuesday at 4 p.m. She said Baskin -- a constitutional officer -- was allotted the money to purchase the cars, and the county didn't have the right to take the cars away.
"He's not facing any fines, jail time, probation, or anything," Mosley said Wednesday. "That order to send the police to confiscate was not a valid order.
"They [the vehicles] are county property, but they are the property of the Clayton County Tax Commissioner's Office," Mosley continued. "Those budgets were allocated to him [Baskin]. Once that budget is allocated ... they [constitutional officers] can do whatever they want to with it, as long as it is in the legal discharge of their duties."
On July 9, Baskin was arrested in the parking lot of the Historic Clayton County Courthouse, after standing between one of two county-issued, 2006 Ford Five Hundreds, and officers, who were attempting to retrieve the vehicle on behalf of the Board of Commissioners.
The BOC authorized the repossession after a disagreement arose between Baskin and the board about the cars being used in a take-home capacity. Baskin was charged with obstruction and released by police, the same day, with a citation. Commissioners Wole Ralph, Sonna Singleton, and Gail Hambrick had approved the decision to retrieve Baskin's take-home vehicles.
Mosley said the county has no "legal basis to stand on" to prosecute Baskin, noting a 2006 disagreement between the board and former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill, when the then-Sheriff redesigned all of his office's county-issued patrol cars to bear his name.
"This goes back to 2006, when they had the big fight with Sheriff Victor Hill about him putting stuff on his vehicles," Mosley said. "Both he [Baskin] and the Sheriff are constitutional officers.
"Even though they [the Sheriff's cars] came out of the county's budget, they were assigned to the Sheriff's Office, and he could do that, as long as he was using those in the legal discharge of his duties.
"The only thing the county could do [regarding Baskin] is cut off his fuel usage and his insurance, because that is paid for out of a different budget, and that comes out of the general fund," Mosley added. "It [the law] is very clear that when you give us [constitutional officers] the budget ... it is the property of that particular subdivision of the county, and the county can't mandate how you use [that money]."
Prior to Mosley's ruling, Baskin was facing a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to one year in jail, or on probation, and up to a $1,000 fine.
Steve Frey, Baskin's attorney, said he is pleased with the ruling. "I think the most important thing it shows to the people of Clayton County is that their tax commissioner hasn't done anything wrong, much less committed a crime."
Frey said Baskin is not interested in suing the county on false arrest charges. However, he said Baskin is prepared to seek legal recourse, if necessary, to retrieve the two vehicles.
"At this time, Mr. Baskin is not interested in suing Clayton County in any shape, form, or fashion," Frey said. "Mr. Baskin simply asks that he be allowed to do his job in the most efficient manor possible. We need the cars. We're unafraid of filing anything to remove impediments from him doing his job."
According to officials with the Tax Commissioner's Office, the two vehicles were used regularly by the department to perform tax collections, declare properties for tax sales, file liens, and pull deeds.
BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell said he agreed with Mosley's ruling, and said that on Tuesday, the board agreed to give Baskin back the two vehicles, with the stipulation that he not use them in a take-home capacity. "The board voted to give him his cars back last night," Bell said Wednesday. "We took it up in executive session. [The stipulation was] that he would not take them home, and he agreed."
On July 28, during a special-called meeting, Ralph, Singleton, and Hambrick voted to seek the governor's aid in retrieving the county's monthly tax proceeds from Baskin, which some members of the board claimed had not been turned over to the county since June. Bell said those members of the board are still waiting for the governor to take action against Baskin.
"That is still in the arms of the governor," Bell said. "We don't have any word from the governor, yet, but I am expecting one any day."
Ralph, Singleton, and Hambrick could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.