Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren has tentatively reached an agreement with the state ethics commission in regards to its investigation of his campaign finances.

If approved, the settlement will end the commission’s investigation into Warren’s spending of campaign contributions, of which commission staff became dubious last year.

Warren’s lawyer, Doug Chalmers, contacted the MDJ on Friday with a statement attributed to the sheriff’s reelection campaign committee, announcing the agreement between parties.

“Sheriff Neil Warren and the Committee to Re-Elect Sheriff Neil Warren have been cooperating with the (Georgia) Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission in its review of the committee’s annual Corn Boilin’ fundraiser and related activities,” the statement from the reelection committee said. “Following the commission staff’s review of records produced by the campaign, the parties have reached an agreement in principle that will fully resolve all issues under investigation by the commission.”

The statement further said the commission, formerly the State Ethics Commission of Georgia, will hold its next meeting “probably in April” to vote on a consent order. The order is currently being drafted by staff to reflect the agreement reached by all parties.

Details of the settlement will not be available until the April meeting, Warren’s reelection campaign committee stated, adding the parties “will have no further comment at this time.”

The MDJ reached out to David Emadi, the executive director of the state commission, on Friday afternoon and he confirmed the statement supplied by Warren’s campaign committee was accurate.

“That consent order will be presented for consideration by commission vote at our April 23rd commission meeting which will be open to the public at the normal location in CLOB (Coverdell Legislative Office Building) 606,” Emadi told the MDJ. “That consent order, if accepted by the commission, will conclude the case against and investigation into the sheriff’s campaign.”

Contentious issues

On Dec. 4 last year, Chalmers, representing the sheriff, stood before commission members at the state Capitol to try and quash four subpoenas the commission had issued in relation to Warren’s use of his campaign funds.

Chalmers was unsuccessful in his attempt, with members denying his motion. During discussion, it was revealed commission staff believed Warren may have violated campaign expense rules by using his contributions for personal or improper use.

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Chalmers argued the commission had no reason to investigate Warren, and therefore its subpoenas, essentially requesting details of every campaign expenditure over the last six years, should be cast aside.

“There’s been no basis to investigate all these expenditures,” Chalmers told the commission on Dec. 4. “There needs to be some basis of investigation. What in effect has happened is the commission staff files a complaint, conducts an investigation then asks the commission for a finding of probable cause at the preliminary hearing.”

Commission chairman Jake Evans made a motion to deny Warren’s request to scuttle the subpoenas after listening to both sides argue case law for more than an hour.

“We could talk about the philosophical issues all day long, but we’ve got to move along,” Evans said.

At issue was whether the commission had the right to investigate Warren without a third party complaint and therefore only on the basis that commission staff believed the sheriff might be in violation of campaign spending and disclosure laws.

Warren wasn’t at the public hearing to see the commissioners vote to deny his request after Chalmers had criticized at length the commission’s complaint in the case. “The complaint is a mess, it’s six to seven pages long of individual expenditures alleging they’re not ordinary or necessary campaign expenditures but not one time does it say why,” Chalmers said. “Some were expenditures for office supplies and food and beverages for the sheriff’s office staff.”

The investigation

The commission’s investigation included four subpoenas to Warren, the Cobb County government, the Cobb sheriff’s office and The Youth Museum in Marietta, which Warren has donated tens of thousands of dollars of his reelection campaign funds to over the years through his annual Corn Boilin’ fundraiser event in Marietta.

The county government and youth museum had already complied with their subpoenas before the Dec. 4 commission meeting, commission staff said, and the sheriff’s office did not object to its subpoena within the required 10 working days so its objection, if any, was waived.

Warren also filed a motion in Cobb County Superior Court to scuttle a fifth subpoena sent by the state ethics commission to CenterState Bank, where Warren’s campaign funds are held. That case is on hold in Cobb Superior Court pending the commission’s next meeting and the outcome of the agreement between parties.

Robert Lane, deputy executive secretary of the state commission, explained at the December hearing in downtown Atlanta why commission staff wanted to look more closely at Warren’s campaign expenses.

“In his campaign reports he cites petty cash disbursements or expenses that on their face are not ordinary or necessary campaign expenses,” Lane said. “There are items that should have been disclosed that were not disclosed. We went to his accountant’s office and pored through his campaign records and came across a number of issues that we noticed within those disclosures.”

Lane argued the commission did not need proof or probable cause of a violation in order to investigate whether a violation had occurred.

“We’re entitled to look,” he said at the meeting.

Lane said Cobb County and its elected officials were among about a dozen local jurisdictions the commission decided to scrutinize early in 2019 in order to more aggressively ensure no violations were occurring.

“(Warren) was one of the officials that got swept up in a preliminary audit,” Lane said.

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