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State Ethics Commissioners Move to Fill Executive Secretary's Post After Resignation

Stefan Ritter, former executive secretary of the Georgia Tarnsparency and Campaign Finance Commission. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)
Stefan Ritter, former executive secretary of the Georgia Tarnsparency and Campaign Finance Commission. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Stefan Ritter, former executive secretary of the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The four lawyers who make up the state Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission are moving quickly to replace the agency’s executive secretary, who resigned Friday following an internal investigation, commission Chairman Jake Evans said.

The commission will begin taking applications this week to replace Stefan Ritter, a former senior assistant state attorney general who was hired to run the ethics commission in 2015.

Ritter resigned Friday at a special meeting of the commission after nearly six weeks on paid administrative leave, Evans said. He was placed on leave during an internal investigation based on complaints filed against him over alleged misuse of a state computer, the commission chairman said. Evans would not elaborate on the nature of the alleged misuse.

“We wanted to ensure throughout the process that it was fair, that the investigation was fair,” he said. “We didn’t want it in any way to be tainted.”

But three formal complaints released Monday by the state in response to an open records request revealed that the investigations leading to Ritter’s departure stemmed from the discovery by commission staff of “hundreds of pornographic images” on Ritter’s state-issued computer that at least one staff member observed Ritter viewing in the office.

Those complaints also accused Ritter of instructing staff not to open inquiries of multiple candidates in the 2018 Atlanta mayoral race who commission staff believed may have violated state campaign finance laws. Instead, Ritter allegedly instructed the staff to contact the candidates and allow them to amend their filings—a violation of state law, according to one complaint.

Ritter also was accused of making a similar call regarding possible campaign violations by one gubernatorial campaign, according to one complaint. Ritter apparently never met with the candidate or campaign staff, and no subpoenas were ever issued by the commission, one complaint said.

Ritter also was accused of failing to immediately investigate and discipline a supervisor who called a subordinate a racial slur, according to one complaint. He was also accused of authorizing that certain employees be paid wages for work they did not do, according to the complaints.

A link to the formal application to replace Ritter will be published on the commission website. Interested candidates will have until Feb. 22 to apply for the job, which pays $181,000 a year, Evans said.

The commission, which is currently short a member, wants to hire an attorney licensed to practice in Georgia to fill the vacancy. It will give preference to lawyers with at least 10 years of professional experience in government or management, Evans said.

The other current commission members are Allen Yee, senior counsel at The Coca-Cola Co.; Eric Barnum, a partner at the Atlanta office of BakerHostetler; and James Kreyenbuhl, a partner at Brennan Harris & Rominger in Savannah. Evans is a senior litigation associate at Holland & Knight in Atlanta.

Three commissioners are appointed by the governor—two from his political party and one from the opposing party. One member is appointed by the lieutenant governor, who also is president of the Georgia Senate, and one by the Speaker of the House.

The commission—a revised version of the state’s former ethics commission—collects campaign finance reports and financial disclosure reports for state and local public officials, candidates for public office and campaign and noncampaign political action committees.

It also collects lobbyist disclosure reports and has authority to investigate potential campaign finance violations.

Following an internal inquiry by the commission, commissioners decided to bring in Atlanta law firm Taylor English Duma to conduct an independent investigation, Evans said. Ritter offered to resign while that investigation was ongoing.

“At that point we worked out the terms of his resignation,” he said. Those terms included a settlement agreement to pay Ritter $45,000 over three months—an amount equivalent to three months of paid wages, Evans said. In return, Ritter agreed to release the commission from any and all potential claims stemming from the investigation.