ATLANTA - Republican gubernatorial hopeful Eric Johnson did not disclose more than $280,000 in taxpayer money paid to his Savannah architecture firm at a time when he was required to do so, according to an Associated Press review of financial reports and state records.
Under state ethics law, Johnson was obligated to disclose any business with the state worth more than $20,000 since he held more than a 10 percent ownership as a managing partner of Hussey, Gay, Bell and DeYoung - one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the Southeast. Johnson no longer has an ownership interest in the firm.
Between 1999 and 2004, Johnson's financial disclosure reports show the firm took in $578,953 for design work on eight state contracts, most for the state university system. At the time, Johnson was the top Republican in the state Senate.
Missing from Johnson's reports, however, was an additional $289,375 the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission paid to the Savannah firm for plans to renovate a library on the campus of Dalton State College.
Johnson disclosed $111,188 for the work on the Dalton State College campus. A manual check of GSFIC ledger entries show the commission paid Hussey $400,563 between 1999 and 2002, according to spokeswoman Katy Pando. The Associated Press obtained the commission's records under an open records request and compared them to Johnson's disclosure reports.
Johnson, who chaired the state Senate Ethics Commission before stepping down in 2009 to run for governor, called the omission "inadvertent."
"In 17 years of public service I have made every effort to be transparent," Johnson said in an interview with the AP. "I wasn't hiding anything."
Johnson said he never solicited state business, but as a managing partner at the firm did have a role in ensuring the contracts were handled properly.
Johnson is one of seven Republicans vying for the party's nomination in the July 20 primary. On the campaign trail, Johnson has emphasized his role as a champion of ethics reform at the Capitol and stressed that he's the candidate who, as a licensed architect and businessman, has created jobs amid a bad economy.
Rick Thompson, former chairman of the Georgia Ethics Commission, said elected officials are obligated to report accurately and there should be a verification system to ensure information is complete.
"You can ask people to disclose as much as you want but unless there is a way to check it you have no way of knowing if they are giving you the whole picture," Thompson said.
Johnson left the Savannah firm in 2004 and went to work for North Point Realty, also based in Savannah. He returned to the architecture firm in late 2009 - after leaving the state Legislature - and is now director of business development.
The firm has continued to do state business. The Department of Transportation, for instance, paid $23,000 to the firm in late 2009 and early 2010. Since Johnson no longer has an ownership stake in the company, he is not obligated to disclose the work.
Johnson said the projects were all competitively bid. But university officials said the selection process for design work, while competitive, is not based simply on a low bid but a number of factors such as the qualifications of the firm and the experience they bring to the project. Only after the most qualified applicant is selected do they discuss cost, said Sharon Brittain, assistant vice chancellor for design and construction.
"You are looking for the best firm, not necessarily the low bidder," she said.
That troubled Bill Bozarth, head of the Georgia Chapter of Common Cause, a good government watchdog group.
"When a contract is awarded on a more subjective basis other than low bid, it naturally calls into question if favoritism is at play," Bozarth said.
And while Johnson says he did not solicit bids for his firm, his role as a powerful state legislator was known among state officials.
An April 16, 2002, memo obtained through an open records request outlined concerns the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education had with the firm's work on predesign for a new building at the Coosa Valley Technical College. The department's facilities director, Tony Bruehl, suggested terminating the contract with the architect.
"The issue may be sensitive because a member of the legislature from Savannah works for Hussey, Gay, Bell and DeYoung Architects," Bruehl wrote. Nonetheless, days later the contract was ended.
Johnson's disclosure reports show that in addition to the Dalton project the firm had the following state contracts:
- Savannah State University, Drew Griffith Science Laboratory, $347,112
- Georgia Tech, Skidaway Oceanography Institute, $12,315
- Georgia Ports Authority, renovations to headquarters, $19,113
- Department of Technical and Adult Ed, preliminary planning for Coosa Valley Tech College building, $35,000
- Armstrong Atlantic State University, programming for new computer center, $5,560
- Georgia Southern, master planning university book store, $47,865
- Gainesville College, preprogramming assistance, $800
Johnson said his firm could have done far more business with the state had he not been in the state Legislature. He said it precluded him from marketing their architecture and engineering services to university presidents and other state agencies in need of design work. Other companies could go to the campuses and essentially "sell" their services, he said.
"The firm missed plenty of opportunities because the managing partner couldn't solicit," he said.
Georgia Ethics Commission: www.ethics.ga.gov