The complaint was filed June 27 by Councilwoman Cris Welsh with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. The agency, formerly known as the Georgia State Ethics Commission, opened a case file July 2 on the complaint, said Holly LaBerge, executive director of the commission.
Mathews has 30 days to respond to the accusations but is not required to respond, said LaBerge.
“It does not affect the case if he doesn’t respond,” LaBerge said. “After that (30 days) it goes on the list to be adjudicated.”
At issue is the mayor’s use of $670 in campaign contributions for his 2011 campaign.
On Nov. 15, 2011, he used $250 in campaign funds to purchase raffle tickets at the annual banquet of the Kennesaw chapter of Ducks Unlimited. He ended up winning the raffle prize — a Rossi 20-gauge shotgun valued at $350 to $400.
Then, on Dec. 20, 2011, more than a month after the election, Mathews used $420 in campaign funds to purchase gift cards at local restaurants. He gave those gift cards to the city's department heads.
Mathews does not dispute the facts in the complaint.
“They were restaurant gift cards given during the holidays for staff, to say thank you for their work and service to the community,” Mathews said.
While he doesn’t dispute buying the raffle tickets or the gift cards with the money people donated to his re-election campaign, he does deny that he did anything illegal. He said he believes the expenditures fall squarely within the realm of acceptable uses allowed by section 21-5-33(a) of the Georgia code.
That section requires that campaign contributions must be used “only to defray ordinary and necessary expenses … incurred in connection with such candidate’s campaign for elective office or such public officer’s fulfillment or retention of such office.”
As for the raffle tickets, Mathews cites a section of the statute which allows the use of campaign funds as donations to nonprofit charitable organizations.
But Welsh interprets the law differently and believes the mayor stepped outside the limits of the law.
Welsh said the purchase of raffle tickets did not qualify as a donation to Ducks Unlimited.
“To donate is to give money when you’re not expecting anything in return,” she said. “But for that $250 purchase of tickets you were purchasing a chance to win six or seven things.”
Welsh said she filed the complaint on behalf of a constituent, Debra Williams, who worked as a volunteer at the Ducks Unlimited banquet.
“He purchased raffle tickets that were basically a lottery ticket to win, in this case, the shotgun, and he should have either given that gun away or declared it on his campaign contribution disclosure report,” she said.
Gift cards for city staff
Matthews’s purchase of $420 in restaurant gift cards for city staff was “a blatant effort to influence” the vote of those employees, according to Welsh.
“I don’t want to be construed as a troublemaker,” Welsh said. “That’s not my goal. But everyone has complained for so long about a good ole boy network yet nobody is willing to say anything. I’m to the point that my neck is out there so far now I might as well get my head chopped off.”
Williams stands by her claim that Mathews was not in attendance at the Ducks Unlimited banquet to further his election chances and shouldn’t have been spending campaign money in efforts to win a shotgun.
“It can’t be used to purchase anything. He has still gained from it, and the gun wasn’t donated back. He didn’t buy an ad, he didn’t rent a table,” she said. “He was not campaigning there, because Ducks Unlimited does not allow any campaigning or campaign material at any of their events.
“He bought the tickets. He didn’t just make a donation. In that packet there was I think 10 raffle tickets.”
Mathews no stranger to complaints, controversy
Mathews is halfway through his second term as mayor and previously served on the council.
This is not the first time someone has filed an ethics complaint against him.
On July 4, 2012, Kennesaw resident David Ermutlu filed a complaint with the city ethics commission claiming that Mathews was conducting personal business on a city computer and phone and did not recuse himself from an attempt to hire an ambulance service for which he worked. He admitted to sending “one email” by mistake from the wrong account. He also promised to recuse himself from any business regarding ambulance service.
The city ethics commission dismissed the claim.
The council has operated largely along a fault line ever since, with two council members, Tim Killingsworth and Jeff Duckett, siding regularly with the mayor while Welsh, Bruce Jenkins and the late Bill Thrash willing to confront him on certain issues.
Thrash lost a battle with cancer, and last month the fault line broke loose again on the issue of who should be appointed to fulfill the last few months of his unexpired term. Instead of going with Thrash’s widow, Suzanne Thrash, the mayor cast the deciding vote in favor of another candidate, Matt Riedemann.
Lining up in familiar form
Killingsworth said he hasn’t seen the new complaint but doubted it had much merit.
“As I understand it, she filed that on behalf of a constituent,” Killingsworth said. “I believe in going to talk to people. I certainly don’t want to say anything negative that would hurt my city or hurt anyone publically. I don’t think that it serves much purpose.”
Councilman Bruce Jenkins said he takes seriously any accusation from a constituent regarding ethics.
“But, in light of that, we’ll need to see what the state ethics commission decides, and what their decision is on whether to move forward or not,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said the issue has not come up at a council meeting. And if it ever does, he believes it should be discussed in open session.
“To my knowledge, no, it hasn’t been discussed. If he (Mathews) wants to discuss this it has to be in open session,” Jenkins said. “He could do it in a work session if he wants or he could make it an agenda item I suppose, but I can’t think of an instance where that was done on a state action.”
Jenkins said he doesn’t believe the issue falls under the “personnel” exemption to the Georgia Open Meetings Act, also called the sunshine law.
“We, as elected officials, are not classified as employees,” he said. “We are elected by the general population, and we answer to the state on this, so if there is any disciplinary action to a local official it’s usually done from the state level, not county level, because it’s the state that grants us our charter.
“All we can do at this point is wait and see what the state is going to do.”
Mathews said he doesn’t expect much to come from the complaint and hasn’t decided yet whether he will even respond to it.
“At this point the state ethics commission has not decided whether or not it’s worthy of a hearing and I’m waiting for that,” he said. “It’s such a ridiculous claim. It’s unfortunate that we have got people who are interested in pushing forward stuff like this.”
Even if an elected official is found to have committed serious ethical violations in Georgia, the state ethics commission has no authority to remove that person from office. It can impose fines or require that corrective actions be taken.
“I’ve lived in a fish bowl for 16 years, so I don’t feel like I have anything to hide,” Mathews said. “Any time anyone wants to see anything having to do with city business I am more than willing to provide it.”
Welsh said she worked to help get Mathews elected to the council and then helped on his two mayoral campaigns. She still believes that he has the city’s interests at heart. Yet, the friction is undeniable.
“The saddest part is that every single one of us wants exactly the same thing and have the same vision for our community,” she said. “We want to see our downtown developed, we want to be a great place for families.”