ATLANTA (AP) — Two elected regulators in Georgia want to give a $10,000 fine from a telephone company to a religious anti-abortion charity with past financial ties to one of the officials, a proposal that the attorney general's office is calling unconstitutional.
Under a settlement, Peerless Network of Georgia LLC will pay a $10,000 penalty for failing to file required reports. Civil penalties usually go to Georgia's state treasury.
Instead, Public Service Commissioner H. Doug Everett proposed this week that the telephone company pay the penalty as a contribution to the Atlanta branch of Care Net, where his wife works as unpaid volunteer. The organization is a Christian charity that discourages women from having abortions. It offers pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and baby supplies to expectant mothers, according to its website and tax filings.
While the commission approved the settlement, it has not yet decided who will receive the money.
Everett's plan was supported by Commissioner Tim Echols, a volunteer on Care Net's local advisory board. Echols said he received nearly $10,000 in consulting payments from Care Net's national parent organization in 2006. Echols said he was hired to recruit board members, raise funds and help revive a then-struggling charity.
The chairman of the Atlanta branch, Tom Mason, donated $600 to Echols' election campaign starting in 2010, according to campaign finance records. Mason said he was unaware of the discussion and never requested funding from utility regulators.
After being questioned in an interview about his connections, Echols said in a statement that he would stop voting on the issue.
"They are a great charity, but I must avoid any appearance of conflict of interest," Echols said.
Emails released under Georgia's open records law show that the attorney general's office has cautioned that state regulators do not have the authority to approve such a deal. In an Aug. 29 email, Senior Assistant Attorney General Daniel Walsh wrote that the Public Service Commission can allow violators to make alternate settlements rather than paying fines, such as by offering consumer refunds or funding training to prevent natural gas accidents.
"Here, I don't see a plausible connection between a utility regulation and a pregnancy center," Walsh wrote.
After utility regulators ignored that advice, Attorney General Sam Olens wrote them a letter Wednesday warning that the plan violated Georgia's state constitution.
"Despite the obvious good intentions of those expressing an interest in a settlement agreement that would provide funds to various non-profit organizations, the law simply does not permit such a result," Olens wrote.
Everett said there is a legitimate tie. Peerless admitted in filings that it failed to comply with several rules, including procedures to ensure the confidentiality of family violence shelters. Everett said Care Net assists pregnant women who are abused and need shelter, although it does not operate any shelter services itself. Peerless officials did not return a call seeking comment.
"I can't understand why this one was singled out," Everett said.
Allowing the company to make a donation to Care Net rather than paying a fine to the state could raise questions over the constitutional separation of church and state. Care Net says on its website that its mission includes, "Sharing the truth that Jesus Christ offers thereby making voluntary pregnancy termination unnecessary and undesirable."
Echols said in an interview that Everett first proposed giving the fine proceeds to Care Net. Echols said he originally wanted to give the funding to charity medical clinics interested in installing or expanding broadband access so that their patients could remotely consult with medical experts without traveling. Echols said he backed Everett's plan on a condition: If the commission rejected Everett's plan to give the proceeds to Care Net, then Everett would support Echols' plan to give the proceeds to the clinics.
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