FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — A Forsyth County Ethics Panel voted unanimously Friday to conduct an evidentiary hearing into allegations against County Commissioner Todd Levent.
The District 3 commissioner is accused of bypassing Open Records protocols to obtain information from another commissioner’s county email account and use the information for political purposes.
The three-member Ethics Panel consists of three attorneys from outside the county, Edwin Saginar, Amelia Phillips and Linwood Gunn. Their decision to move the complaint to an evidentiary inquiry can lead to formal action against Levent, who did not attend the Friday hearing.
Through the meeting, Saginar remarked the ethics probe might have been sparked by politics.
Phillips said there may have been a violation of the public trust by obtaining information that included personal information that would not have been released in an Open Records request.
“There is an appearance of a violation of ethical duty,” Phillips said.
Gunn said that revelations that Levent requesting an email that criticized an official with GDOT suggests the commissioner was not obtaining the information for county business.
The ethics hearing was spurred following an external investigation that probed accusations that Levent had obtained emails from commissioner Cindy Jones Mills’ county email account in March without her knowledge or consent.
The 200-page report, obtained by the Herald in July, cited two instances in which Levent obtained information from Mills’ county email through Assistant to the Board of Commissioners Carol Balcome Haag. In one case, Levent said he had access to the email account and did not have to make the request through Open Records protocols because he is a commissioner, according to Haag’s statement to investigators.
The investigation also cited a third instance in which Levent obtained a spreadsheet of contact information of residents who attended a county town hall through Mills’ email and sent the information to a personal email account.
The outside investigators inconclusively suggested Levent could have sought the information on behalf of the Brandy Beavis campaign against Mills, but neither Levent nor Beavis were interviewed for the investigation. Levent previously said he was unable to be interviewed because of scheduling conflicts, but at an August board meeting some commissioners said he was given ample opportunity.
In September, Levent told the Herald the investigation was spurred for political reasons. He said a contingent of board members began efforts almost two years ago to neutralize his effectiveness by shutting him out of discussions and dealings during board meetings. He said he suspects the enmity arose during the campaign by residents to form a city of Sharon Springs. That campaign failed in a referendum.
The ethics complaint was made by Commission Chair Laura Semanson, who attended Friday’s Ethics Panel hearing. Levent was also in the audience.
No date has been set for the evidentiary hearing.
Levent and Semanson will be given the opportunity to state their case and may call witnesses to testify. The Ethics Panel may either conclude evidence showed Levent violated the county’s Code of Ethics or find “clear and convincing evidence” that shows he did not commit an infraction and dismiss the matter.
If Levent is found guilty of an ethics violation, the panel may issue a written warning, censure or reprimand, remove him from office and/or charge a repayment to the county for any “unjust enrichment.”
The board may also direct that a petition be filed with a proper court for relief or forward its findings to the county’s district attorney for further action.