One of the candidates under fire about whether he is eligible to run for the District 14 state Senate seat in the Nov. 5 special election announced Saturday he is withdrawing from the race.
Dean Sheridan, 51, of Acworth made the announcement at the Cherokee County Republican Party meeting in Canton, where a candidate’s forum was held in the election to fill the seat vacated by Barry Loudermilk in his bid for Congress.
After a three-hour hearing in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Deputy Chief Judge Michael Malihi of the Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings said he would decide the fate of both Sheridan and candidate Matt Laughridge, 25, of Bartow County, in the next few days.
The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office asked the office to hold the hearing and make a recommendation in response to complaints filed by Canton resident Garrett Jamieson, who said neither of the candidates met the requirements to seek the office as laid out by Georgia’s Constitution.
Jamieson filed a complaint in September saying Laughridge wasn’t legally eligible because he had not lived in District 14 for a full year, and Sheridan wasn’t because he had an active tax lien placed against him by the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid business taxes.
Another candidate, Christopher G. Nesmith, of Adairsville, also came to the hearing to defend himself against a complaint filed by Jamieson accusing that he had unpaid taxes as well.
But Nesmith was cleared when Jamieson said he wanted to drop his complaint, because the candidate had paid off the tax bill, which was for 2012 property taxes on his home in Adairsville.
Other candidates in the special election for District 14 are Dwight Pullen, 53, of Canton, Nicole Ebbeskotte, 42, of Woodstock and Bruce Thompson, 48, of White.
Sheridan said he made the decision to withdraw from the race so the conservative vote would not be split.
“My greatest fear is that by continuing my campaign in effect I/we together will leave the door open for a candidate in this District 14 race that does not hold our values, our ideology and our core principles and split the upcoming vote,” he said in making the announcement. “With this, I refuse to take this risk; for all of you. You all know me as a doer, one who unites, a fiscal conservative fighter.”
Sheridan said there were also other factors including rumors and false accusations, which led to his decision.
“The business challenges my family must go through, combined with what I now believe will be a prolonged campaign is a risk. One the district and my family can ill afford to misjudge. With that, I regretfully resign my candidacy effective today,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan said the election was not just about him, but the party.
“Personally, I am inspired by the work over the last two years that I refer to as ‘the new Republican Party in Cherokee County’ has done,” Sheridan said. “In particular, the work our Chairman Rick Davies and the other chairmen in the surrounding counties have with the resolution reaffirming the belief in Constitutional principles, transparency and accountability to a constituency.”
After a hearing Thursday in Atlanta before Deputy Chief Judge Michael Malihi of the Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings, a decision on a complaint that Sheridan owed back taxes was expected to be decided by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office this week.
Sheridan said at the time the complaint was filed he did not owe the taxes, since they were charged against a business he had owned after it closed. He had said he planned to sort the matter out with the IRS.
He said at the hearing, however, the government shutdown had made it difficult to resolve the matter.
“For me, this race is about you, for all of the constituents in District 14; I simply refuse to make this about me.” Sheridan said Saturday in his announcement that he was not running. “Originally, as you know, my entrance in this race was a sprint that we can win and still could for our county. This race, like it or not, is about Cherokee County.”
Sheridan came to the eligibility hearing Thursday without a lawyer and defended himself against what he called Jamieson’s malicious accusations.
The Acworth resident told the judge he doesn’t truly owe the taxes Jamieson cited because they were charged for a business he owned after it had already closed down.
“It happens all the time when people close a business,” Sheridan said. “A lot of people (with closed businesses) have told me that when they’ve done their automatic filing, the bills kept coming whether they’re valid bills or not, like a magazine subscription.”
Sheridan said he considered paying off the taxes to satisfy Jamieson.
“I thought if I went ahead there and paid it anyway, even though I don’t owe it, that would please (Jamieson),” he said.
Then he decided against that.
“The fact of the matter is there’s no pleasing this man,” Sheridan said.
Now, Sheridan said he plans on appealing the tax lien.
He said he hasn’t been able to do that, though, because of the conflicts under way in Washington, D.C.
“They’re shut down and closed because of the government shutdown,” he said. “I couldn’t go down there and pay it if I wanted to.”
Sheridan added he hadn’t been finally adjudicated to pay the taxes, which according to Georgia law, would be required to disqualify him.
Candidate residency in question
Laughridge, a Bartow County candidate, and his attorney, Stefan Passantino, strongly denied Jamieson’s allegations before the judge Thursday.
Laughridge said he has been living in the District for more than a year at an address on Captains Walk Drive in Cartersville, which is in District 14.
That address is a houseboat on Lake Allatoona, where Laughridge said he has lived since December 2011 while looking for a more permanent place.
According to Passantino, bills charged to Laughridge for electricity and septic services at the houseboat prove he has lived there for more than a year.
But Jamieson’s attorney, LaDawn Jones, argued that other documents produced by her client show the candidate has conflicting addresses on file. Jones is also a Democratic state representative from Atlanta.
“I was able to look into his address history, tax filings,” Jamieson said when questioned by Jones. “There are address discrepancies on tax documents.”
Jamieson said those discrepancies arise from the address previously listed on Laughridge’s driver’s license, as well as the fact that the houseboat is registered with Bartow County to an address not in District 14.
Laughridge’s license previously listed an address in Kingston, which sits in state Senate District 52. The same address, which is Laughridge’s parents’ home, was also the one used to register the house boat with Bartow County, according to Jamieson.
Jamieson also said Laughridge was arrested in February by the Georgia State Patrol, and at that time the address on his license was in Kingston.
He was charged with DUI and two traffic violations, police records show.
The police officer who arrested Laughridge testified Thursday, but said he had no intimate knowledge of where the candidate lived in February, just that his license listed his address at the time of the arrest.
Laughridge said after the hearing Thursday he was arrested after he crashed his car while trying to miss a deer on his way to the boat.
“I wasn’t drunk,” Laughridge said, adding he is fighting the charges and has no court date yet.
For Jamieson, a recent revelation that Laughridge had been living on a house boat “raised some red flags.”
Living full time on a houseboat on Lake Allatoona, Jamieson testified, is not legal, because the land is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Laughridge was also called to testify and said he recently found out living on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property wasn’t allowed.
He said he moved off the boat when the “commodore” of his yacht club told him about two weeks ago the couldn’t live there full time.
Laughridge said he now lives in an apartment in Cartersville, which is also in District 14.
Despite Laughridge’s position he has lived on the boat for more than a year, his opponents say his voting record in Bartow County shows his legal residency was not in District 14.
Cherokee County activist Linda Flory testified Thursday on research she had done on the candidate’s voting history, noting that he voted in a different state Senate district in 2012. Bartow elections officials have confirmed Laughridge voted in District 52 three times in 2012, only changing his address to one in District 14 in August.
Jones asked Laughridge why he hadn’t changed his address to vote until August.
Laughridge said although changing the address wasn’t something he thought of often, he hadn’t done it because he planned to move into a home on Peeples Valley Road in Cartersville, which is also in District 14.
The candidate said he finalized a purchase of property there in December after considering it for several years, but the home had to be torn down because of its condition and he is waiting to move in.
Passantino said the allegations Laughridge’s residency was in violation of Army Corps of Engineers regulations, or what addresses he claimed on his driver’s license or voter registration, were all irrelevant.
The “sole issue” before the judge, Passantino said, was where Laughridge physically lived for the last year.
“Did Mr. Laughridge reside as a matter of law within the District for the past year?,” Passantino asked. “There is no question that he has resided within the district for more than a year. He was living within the district, continues to live within the district and intends in the future to live within the district.”
Considering the different addresses on file for the candidate, Jones asked Laughridge why he chose to run for District 14 in the state Senate, as opposed to any other district.
“We sought general counsel beforehand to find out what district to run in, and, based on that advice, it was 14,” Laughridge answered. “We just wanted to make sure — because I do have different addresses — which one was the appropriate one.”