by Victoria Andersen
On February 6, 2017, the State Board of Elections found that Lane Watts, former chairman of the Fayette County Republican Party (FCRP), had in fact violated laws of the Georgia Election Code by submitting false information to the Fayette County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, a board that Lane Watts appointed his mother, Marilyn Watts, to.
The State Elections Board specifically asserted that any person in violation Georgia Code Section 21-2-562(a)(1), “[s]hall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years or to pay a fine not to exceed $100,000.00, or both.”
The State Board’s decision called for three CIVIL sanctions: Payment of a $5,000 civil penalty to the State Election Board, cease and desist from further violations, and a public reprimand.
The State Elections Board does not have jurisdiction to convict someone of a criminal charge, while the criminal justice system does not normally impose civil sanctions. The Board’s imposition of said civil penalties against Lane Watts does not legally preclude criminal prosecution by other agencies, including the Fayette County District Attorney, Georgia’s Attorney General, and even the Feds. Georgia civil litigators, criminal defense attorneys, public defenders, and solicitor generals have said that criminal prosecution is still legally an option.
“Criminal charges can still be pursued by prosecutors – the local district attorney, the Attorney General, or a special prosecutor,” said Catherine Bernard, Criminal Defense attorney and Judiciary Watchdogs Board Member. “Federal charges would be a separate matter, since this concerns violations of a state statute. In 1996, the Georgia Supreme Court specifically stated that criminal sanctions were available in these cases (though OCGA 21-2-562 is already quite clear) holding that violations of election rules are not ‘mere technicalities but are an integral part of preserving the sanctity of the voting process.’ McCranie v. Mullis, 267 Ga. 416, affirming a lower court’s decision to re-do a general primary election for Dodge County Commissioner because of election violations.”
Oddly enough, after the State Board of Elections rendered the order finding Watts guilty of voter fraud, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners chose to ignore a request from the FCRP to forego attorney fees as part of the push to remove Marilyn Watts from the Board of Elections in a fight that dates back to 2011. At a April 25, 2017 meeting, Commissioner Brown expressed pursuing said legal fees sends the message to the public, “If you talk against me [the government] you will face the penalty”.
According the Commission’s minutes of same April meeting, Commissioner Charles Rousseau stated at the April 25 Commissioners meeting that the comments in response to the “Lane situation” are extremely valid, chilling, and troubling. Brown agreed that pursuing the legal fees under the misconduct the Board had witnessed is sending the wrong message to the public.
It is still undetermined whether criminal charges will be filed against Lane Watts.
Judge Boswell’s order of January 6, 2017, ordering the local Republican party to pay $30,000 in legal fees to the Commission, reflects incorrect findings as they contradict the findings of fact, and conclusions of law, rendered by the State Elections Board only one month later on February 6. Boswell’s decision was made prior to Lane Watts being found guilty of voter fraud.
If indeed the Commissioners are actually concerned with the protection of County money, then certainly they will seek reimbursement from County Attorney Dennis Davenport for $35,000 of the legal fees incurred. After all, he was the one who had advised that Ms. Watts’ attorney fees could be paid by the County since she was simply acting in the course and scope of her employment, a position not shared by the County’s insurance carrier. Moreover, Davenport is the one who personally reviewed and approved the $65,000 in bills submitted by Ms. Watts’ attorney. Yet the Court found that only $30,000 of those bills were reasonable. Although the trial court might not have had the information concerning the conviction of Ms. Watts’s son, the County Commission is certainly aware of said facts today. The Commission has the absolute authority to vote to drop the legal fees matter.
At Thursday’s meeting, wife of Fayette County Board Commissioner Randy Ognio, Denise Ognio appeared before the commissioners vehemently, and ambiguously, alleging Steve Brown has violated ethics rules by him publicly posting on Facebook details concerning the Marilyn Watts lawsuit fees discussed in Executive Session on August 24, 2017.
“There is no doubt that Commissioner Ognio’s wife, Denise, spoke before the Board of Commissioners with the threat of ethics allegations in an attempt to intimidate me from speaking out on what I believe to seriously inappropriate behavior,” said Brown. “She can threaten all she wants, but I will never condone this kind of government mischief.”
According to Brown, since the vote to further pursue respective legal fees from the Fayette County Republican Party was public, no further Executive Session discussions would be appropriate concerning the Lane and Marilyn Watts lawsuits as they have been concluded. Brown said that discussions took place in closed session specifically concerning removing payment from the Republican Party and dumping it on former GOP Chairman Scott Fabricius. The blame for the maneuver would be placed on Marilyn Watts. The discussion on legal fees took place in closed session on August 24, 2017 and were done improperly pursuant to Georgia’s Open Meeting Act.
“An intelligent look at this situation would lead any observer to question how anyone could claim that the scheming surrounding the legal fees that occurred in the recent executive session could be appropriate, as there is no ongoing or potential litigation because the case has concluded and we openly discussed those fees in an open Board of Commissioners meeting on April 25, 2017, so how could the matter now be pulled back into executive session?” asked Brown. “I have scarce respect for Marylyn Watts, but I refuse to make her the scapegoat for a Board of Commissioners decision, and I deplore exacting vengeance on blameless people like Scott Fabricius.”
Denise Ognio maintains that Brown violated the intent of executive session.
“Commissioner Brown put on Facebook what he says was discussed in Executive Board Meeting of the County. Ethically that was wrong,” said Denise Ognio. “People have no way to know if what he says is true or not. It was that I don’t know if it is true or not, it was that there is a reason they have executive session. They are discussions not open for public conversation. No one [referring to the other commissioners] will tell me if what he said is true or not as it was not to be discussed.”
Commissioner Ognio declined to comment when asked to confirm the charges from Brown that the legal fees were improperly discussed in closed session.
Should the Fayette County Commission continue to pursue legal fees, it could have a chilling effect on citizens seeking to expose and root out the abuse of public trust by government officials.