Many tools are available which we can use to find and expose public leeches. Some of these are listed below, we’ll get into more details about many of these in future articles. While I am not an attorney, and none of what you read on this site is legal advice, the applicable laws, both state and federal, are clear enough for anyone to read them and know what they mean. When researching federal laws, we prefer Cornell’s US code reference website. While we specifically reference Georgia law at the state level, leechwatchers outside of Georgia should find similar provisions in their own state laws. When researching Georgia law, we like to use Justia, which provides free access to the public. Title 36, Local Government and Title 45, Public Officers and Employees, are of particular interest to our leechwatching, although other civil and criminal statutes will be highlighted from time to time as needed. The Georgia Attorney General’s website is also helpful with two of these exceptions; the open meetings and open records acts, which both come from Title 50, State Government.
The Georgia Open Meetings Act
Formally known as O.C.G.A. §50-14-1, et. seq. a text description can be found here, as linked from the attorney general’s site. We will drill into this law in more detail in a future article, but the important provisions include the requirement to hold votes publicly, advertise special meetings in advance, accommodate the public in a sufficiently large venue, and only retire to closed executive sessions under very specific circumstances. A very important provision is that a public body must allow anyone, not just representatives of the media, to audio- or video-record public proceedings, no permission required. Manassas’ gross violation of this act in January, 2016, was what first caught my attention about their operations; by improperly hiding some business from the public, I began to realize that they might have something to hide. It turns out that they do. Or at least they did.
The Georgia Open Records Act
Formally known as O.C.G.A. §50-18-70, et. seq., or GORA for short, a text description can be found here, as linked from the attorney general’s site. We will also drill into this law in more detail in a future article, but the important provisions include the requirement to respond promptly, provide full and complete answers, charge reasonable fees for copies and/or research, and only withhold information in specific and reasonable circumstances, such as in juvenile-related matters. Manassas routinely violates the provisions of this act, as we shall see in future articles.
State Mandated Public Officials Training
While not technically a resource available to the public or most leechwatchers, it is import to note that Georgia law requires all newly elected officials to attend operations and ethics training shortly after taking office. During this training, both the open meetings and open records acts are emphasized. Some long-serving officials are exempted, but many use this excuse to claim ignorance of the law.
Mayor Rogers of Manassas has attended this training, and so has no excuse for the lapses in good governance during her tenure. To our knowledge, the only Manassas council member to have ever attended this training is our own Audrey Baugh, and she resigned in disgust in March, 2016, after it became clear that the city government had no intention of fully complying with state law.
Any responsible government office will stamp documents, including records requests, as received as part of their official duties. But, predictably, officials with something to hide will refuse to do this, thinking that it will save them from its contents. You guessed it, this includes Manassas. Back in March, 2016, this author presented the city with a list of discrepancies in their operations with respect to state law, a list of pre-suit demands that they perform in order to become compliant, and information requested from them in the interim. However, both the clerk and the mayor refused to sign for receipt, and, according to Mayor Rogers at the time, all city council members (Audrey solely excepted) advised her not to sign for receipt.
This is where certified mail comes in. By sending a certified letter, with receipt, you can force receipt of your request at the post office. And, by using online tracking, you can watch as it sits there while they try to decide whether or not to sign for it. By the way, the day after signing for certified mail containing the refused March request, which arrived in April, Mayor Rogers went to the sheriff’s office, resulting in a ridiculous allegation against this author. You’ll see the details of this slimy attempt on her part in a future article, and learn to recognize the pattern of when officials try to misuse their power and authority to hide their own misconduct.
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling, 212 F.3d 1332 (2000)
Don’t want to incur the expense of certified mailing and still want to force a renegade public official into accepting your correspondence or providing records? This circuit court ruling, found here, clearly states that:
The First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, and specifically, a right to record matters of public interest.
While the case involved was specifically about recording police, the court’s decision above references the more general public officials … on public property, overturning an incorrect district court decision on the matter. This means that a public official would have a difficult time justifying a prohibition against taking video of an interaction with them in their offices. True to form, however, Manassas has attempted to slime their way around this ruling, after having been specifically informed of its provisions, by making exaggerated claims about security of personal information when their own incapacity or unwillingness to secure that information is at fault. Again, someone with something to hide will try to hide it. We’ll drill into that and more in the future.
Property Tax Records
This publicly available resource allows anyone to perform research on property taxes, which provides a wealth of information. Want to know which officials, or their friends, aren’t paying property taxes? Want to know what property an official owns, and may have extorted from the previous owners? Want to know which quasi-public agency stepped in to try to divert a corruption scandal? It’s all in the public records, you don’t need a records request, and we’ll show you how to use it.
Federal Racketeering Laws
Formally known as 18 USC 96, §1961, et. seq., the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws are popularized as being a tool against organized crime, particularly involving drug crimes. But, RICO can also be used against public officials who act in an organized way (an enterprise) in a pattern of activity to cover up crimes or perpetuate crimes, particularly those involving bribery, extortion, certain kinds of embezzlement or fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, obstruction of criminal investigations or state or local law enforcement, tampering with a witness, victim or informant, retaliation against a witness, victim or informant, or interference with commerce, robbery or extortion. By pattern of activity, RICO states at least two acts of racketeering within ten years, and by enterprise is included two or more individuals, among others. Recognize any of these behaviors? Now guess what it means when two or more officials collude to hide material facts of this sort of misconduct in two or more instances.
Federal Civil Rights Laws
Formally known as 18 USC 42, §1981, et. seq., the federal civil rights laws are typically understood as applying to victims of racial discrimination. However, one particular provision, 18 USC 42, §1983, Civil Action For Deprivation of Rights, applies generally to anyone who “under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage” is deprived of any Constitutional right. See the narrative under the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals section, above, for a hypothetical case in which this statute might apply. A successful civil case brought under this statute may sometimes be accompanied by, or accompany, RICO charges, depending what this deprivation of rights was intended to hide.
Federal False Claims Act
Formally known as 31 USC, §3729, et. seq., the False Claims Act protects whistleblowers in cases of fraudulent federal claims or expenditures, and in certain circumstances, allows whistleblowers to receive a portion of the collected monies as a bounty. Also known as a qui tam (kwee tam) action, these cases must be brought by an insider (information derived from public records requests does not apply) who exposes or defects from a scam against the taxpayers (federal only, state monies do not apply). One example of an applicable qui tam action would involve a fraudulently applied-for or misspent federal grant. In some cases, a qui tam may shield an involved whistleblower from action in an accompanying RICO case, unless the individual waits until action is inevitable and is just trying to dodge an ongoing investigation.
As a public service (we don’t get, or are allowed to take, a dime from the proceeds), we have qui tam attorneys on speed dial. If you are an insider who can expose a fraud against the taxpayers, let us know and we’ll get you the number for one of these. If the fraud becomes exposed before you file a suit, you lose. The taxpayer wins either way.
An Attentive Ear
This one is probably the most important tool of all. Once you notice public officials putting on a scripted play during a meeting, tell unnecessary lies to try to put you off the scent of the truth, or stir up public opinion against you to try to hide their misconduct, you’ll see how powerful a tool simply listening can be. We’ll show how to parse what officials say, and what this means about what they are trying to hide. You can then use the other tools above to drill into the facts and find out what rot hides behind the lying smiles.
As you can see, powerful individual, state and federal tools exist which allow leechwatching to reach a whole new level beyond just exposure. We’ll drill into all of these tools, and more, in future articles and help you keep wayward public officials on a tight leash, where they belong.