FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Forsyth County will spend additional funds for an external investigation into a Board of Commission member for skirting Open Records protocols to obtain emails and other information from another representative without their knowledge. The vote to approve the resolution passed 3-0 at the Aug. 6 commission meeting with commissioners Todd Levent and Cindy Jones Mills recused.
At the same meeting, the board discussed the creation of a new county position with a person at the center of the investigation listed as the candidate for the new job.
County officials had previously authorized up to $20,000 for the investigation into Levent’s dealings, but County Attorney Ken Jarrard, who was not involved in the inquiry, said there are “remaining fees” that must be paid to the independent law firm. The resolution also allows for additional funding for any other “activities” the Board of Commissioners may elect to take resulting from the investigation.
In July, before the investigation report had been made public, the board approved a vote to draft a resolution reprimanding Levent and potentially charge him with ethics violations. Levent and Mills were recused from that vote.
Jarrard said the extra dollars will not be used for further investigation.
Neither the resolution nor the discussions among commissioners listed a dollar amount. Commissioner Molly Cooper brought up a figure of $38,000 at the July 28 work session, but Commission Chair Laura Semanson countered that the total cost was not finalized.
A 200-page report of the investigation showed Levent circumvented regular county practices for obtaining emails through the Open Records Act. In one instance, Levent told an assistant he did not have to follow the Open Records procedure because he was a commissioner.
The report revealed two instances in which Levent accessed emails and records of fellow commissioner Cindy Jones Mills without her knowledge and without submitting an Open Records Request. Through Open Records protocols, Mills would have been aware of Levent’s request for information after it was submitted.
The investigation suggested Levent was possibly using the information in an attempt to campaign for Brandy Bevis, who ran against Mills in the June 9 primary election. However, the investigation could not reach a “definite conclusion,” partly because neither Levent nor Bevis were interviewed as a part of the inquiry. The report stated Levent was not interviewed due to a scheduling conflict with his attorney, and Bevis refused to be questioned without a subpoena.
The report revealed that Levent instructed an assistant to the Board of Commissioners to retrieve a specific email from Mills’ county email account in March. The assistant, Carol Balcome Haag, retrieved the email, printed it and placed it in Levent’s county office.
In the second instance, Levent made a telephone request to Haag seeking additional emails between Mills and one of her constituents. Haag suggested the emails could be obtained through an Open Records Request, but Levent replied that he had access to Mills’ county email because he was a commissioner.
Haag complied with the request and sent Levent nine emails, which the commissioner later forwarded to his personal campaign email address.
The Herald newspaper filed its own Open Records request for emails related to discussions leading up to the initial investigation. The paper argued the disclosure of the emails was in the public interest for release before the June 9 primary. The newspaper’s request was denied, citing an “ongoing investigation.”
The Georgia Attorney General’s Office has yet to fully rule on the newspaper’s appeal of the county’s denial.
During the Aug. 6 commission meeting, the board discussed creation of a new assistant position with Department of Voter Registrations and Elections, and named Haag as the candidate. Levent, out of “an abundance of caution,” recused himself from the agenda item. Commissioners asked for more information on the job position and other elections department funding requests, prompting the board to defer their decision to a future work session. Semanson said she had concerns over the position’s pay grade, which she found to be “pretty high.”
Another later request for information by Levent did not skirt open record procedures, but investigators found the circumstances suspect.
The investigation showed Levent requested a list of contact information for attendees at a 2018 town hall for a proposed wastewater facility. A man at that meeting, who was also included in one of the emails obtained from Mills’ account, received a call from Levent ahead of the primary in which the commissioner urged he not vote for Mills.
Levent did not need to file a records request for the list, the report said, but Levent sending the list to his personal email account just 17 minutes after receiving the spreadsheet “raises questions about what he did with it.”