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Ethics board dismisses complaint against Commissioner Jerrica Richardson


Finding no evidence to support the conflict of interest allegations made against Commissioner Jerica Richardson, the Cobb County Board of Ethics dismissed a complaint filed by East Cobb resident Debra Fisher, during a preliminary hearing last week.

The ethics board, a seven-member body appointed by the Cobb Board of Commissioners, the Cobb Tax Commissioner, the Cobb Sheriff, the Cobb Solicitor General, the chief judges of the Cobb probate and magistrate courts and the clerk of the Cobb State Court, voted 6-0, with one member absent, to dismiss the complaint, saying it did not find “specific, substantiated evidence to support a reasonable belief” of an ethics violation.

In her complaint, Republican activist Fisher argued that Richardson benefited financially through her nonprofit organization, For Which It Stance, which advocates for local control. Fisher’s complaint sought to void Richardson’s votes, which would have then voided the map altogether. Fisher sought a reprimand and/or censure of Richardson, and wanted to void Richardson’s votes on the maps, which would result in a 2-2 deadlock on the BOC.

Board members said they were looking for evidence to support claims of financial benefit for Richardson and were unpersuaded by the complaint.

Board chairman Carlos Rodriguez spelled out the differences in the ethics code between compatible and incompatible employment, as they related to elected officials’ discharging of their official duties. The code, he said, precludes commissioners from using their office to benefit in for-profit entities, not non-profits. “In my mind, it doesn’t really even matter whether she received some sort of compensation as a member of For Which It Stance or not,” he said, “as long as it’s not incompatible with her public duty and responsibility.”

Board member Janet Savage said “we have not seen any hardcore evidence that there was private gain” for Richardson.

Board member Cynthia Ann Smith said, “We don’t have any evidence that Ms. Richardson has profit. “But we don’t have any evidence that she didn’t either.”

Board member Winter Wheeler said, “We, again, did not see any specific evidence or information that anything against our ethics code occurred.” 

The constitutionality of the county’s maneuver will need to be determined in court through pending litigation.

Richardson’s attorney, Justin O’Dell, argued at the hearing that Fisher did not meet the burden of proof with “specific, substantiated or credible evidence,” and the board agreed. 

O’Dell compared Richardson’s advocacy group to local political parties, which also solicit donations, feature various elected officials, and advocate for issues they support. “To suggest that a commissioner would not be allowed to be engaged in advocacy or political activity, simply because the outcome of the advocacy or political activity would help them remain in office, would undermine the entirety of the entire political structure that we have in this country,” O’Dell said.

The Cobb County Code of Ethics prohibits elected officials from using their positions to “provide any benefits, financial or otherwise, to themselves or to other individuals or to any for-profit organization of which they are a member,” and deliberately excludes nonprofit organizations. 

For Which It Stance is a nonprofit organization, not-for-profit. Therefore, the code does not prohibit Richardson from voting on the home rule resolution, O’Dell said. 

“She has a right as a commissioner to advocate, argue and fight for the people who elected her and what she perceives to be the will of those people,” he said. 

Richardson said, ”I am certainly grateful for the outcome of this hearing, and hope that it is clear that my full intention is to support my community, to advocate on its behalf and to educate it on all the intricacies of our system.” When asked whether she has financially benefited through the nonprofit, Richardson said: “I have not.”

The ethics board’ unanimous vote to dismiss the complaint leaves the matter in the hands of the court to determine whether the county’s move to amend its own map under home rule is constitutional and whether Richardson will be allowed to remain in office.

Fisher has 30 days to appeal the decision in Cobb Superior Court.


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