Originally created 08/15/97

Georgia slaps Coleman with largest-ever ethics fine



ATLANTA - House Appropriations Chairman Terry Coleman may be able to keep track of the state's $11 billion annual budget, but Thursday he was slapped with the largest ethics fine ever for his handling of $14,000 in campaign contributions.

The state Ethics Commission fined Coleman, D-Eastman, $6,500 and ordered him to reimburse the state another $2,500 for the cost of auditing his campaign books and personal accounts.

The $6,500 must come out of Coleman's pocket. He can use campaign funds to repay the state the $2,500.

The previous largest fine against a candidate or state official was $5,000 levied against Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard in 1995 for failing to disclose campaign loans and expenses.

Coleman admitted to numerous violations, including that he used campaign money for Christmas bonuses and to help his son attend college. He transferred about $14,000 from his campaign to his personal accounts, a consent order approved by the State Ethics Commission said.

While Coleman paid his campaign back at least some of the money, there is still a shortfall in his campaign account, according to the consent order.

The order said Coleman also did not report the interest earned on a certificate of deposit in his campaign account.

The transfers and reimbursements occurred over a seven-year period.

"I just find a long pattern of disregard of what ought to be a fairly well-understood law," said Commission member Dick Yarbrough, who also called Coleman's record-keeping "cavalier."

Commissioner Jane Fahey also was critical of Coleman.

"I am extraordinarily troubled by the length of time of the violations and the pattern of the violations. I appreciate that $6,500 is a record. I strongly disagree with reimbursing the $2,500 out of campaign funds. The taxpayers should recoup that money in full from Mr. Coleman," Fahey said.

Though Coleman consented to the fine in a deal arranged ahead of time, he does not concede that he purposefully put campaign money into his personal account to avoid bouncing checks.

Coleman blamed the transfers on an inexperienced bank teller. But a letter he wrote to the Bank of Dodge County in 1986 allowed officials "to transfer funds between my accounts if necessary to keep from returning any of my checks," according to the consent order.

In a written statement Thursday, Coleman said, "I thought the fine was a little steep, compared to other cases, but so be it. Any mistakes that were made were my responsibility and I accept that responsibility."

Melissa Metcalfe, executive director of Georgia Common Cause, called for Coleman's demotion as chairman of the budget-writing appropriations committee.

"Considering he's the head of appropriations and he plays these kinds of shenanigans with his personal and campaign finances, I think the leadership of the House should re-examine his position and voters should re-examine their faith in him," Metcalfe said.

However, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jack Connell, D-Augusta, pledged his full support to Coleman.

"Sometimes, people do the state better than their own," said Connell. "You couldn't find a finer person. I have the utmost confidence in Terry."