A state audit released today found that officials with the State Ethics Commission had not intentionally destroyed evidence in the matter, but did find that commission staff had not followed procedures in making the ethics statements available to the public, Dan Kane reports.
The case stems from a visit that Perdue's legal counsel, Will Polk, had made in October 2007, to review her ethics statements, which are an accounting of her financial interests. The statements are intended to help officials avoid conflicts of interest. Polk had been allowed to review the files behind closed doors. An aide, Amanda Thaxton, had noted in an electronic log that this was not the commission's policy; a staff email had told them not to let members of the public review ethics files without staff supervision.
Thaxton filed a complaint to the auditor's office, which then launched an investigation. She was later fired by the commission and has since filed a whistleblower's lawsuit that is pending in state court. The commission has denied that she was fired in retaliation. The audit did not address Thaxton's whistleblower claim. Copies of the log showed that her entry had been removed. But the auditor's report released today found that the change was made prior to the commission being notified of the auditor's investigation, so there was no evidence of tampering.
More after the jump.
The report also found that the electronic log was not secure, and that successive changes erased previous versions. In a response, commission Executive Director Perry Newson disputed whether the email directive pertained to cases in which public officials came in to review their filings or sent in representatives to do so. But he said the commission now requires staff supervise anyone reviewing the records.
Dennis Patterson, a spokesman for the auditor's office, said the commission needs to supervise those reviewing the records to prevent them from being altered. The records are central to ethics investigations, which can result in criminal charges if a public official used the statements to lie or mislead the public. Newson said the electronic log has been made secure, but he questioned the need to develop a system that would track every instance in which the log was changed.
The commission had filed suit last year to prevent the auditor's office, which was then led by Les Merritt, a Republican, from obtaining commission records. Patterson said the suit was settled in April with the commission agreeing to provide the records. By then, voters had elected a new state auditor, Beth Wood, a Democrat and who was not involved in the original dispute.