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Split ethics board sides with county attorney

On a 2-1 vote, an ethics board has dismissed a detailed ethics complaint lodged against Scott Bennett, the in-house attorney who represents the Fayette County Commission.

Among other allegations, the complaint charged that Bennett colluded to have a Peachtree City-based attorney file a lawsuit against the county in federal court. Bennett told the ethics board that he did not conspire with attorney Rick Lindsey; rather that Lindsey had notified him he would file the lawsuit, which ironically sought to enforce an action approved by the commission in February: the formal adoption of a new five-district map to elect members to the county commission.

The lawsuit was not an adversarial one because the commission actually wanted the map to be adopted in time for the 2012 elections, Bennett noted.

The lawsuit was necessary because the Georgia legislature did not vote on the newly-drawn five-district map before the end of the legislative session in April, which meant the county faced having its elections this year on a map that had malapportioned districts based on population.

Bennett explained that he drafted a proposed complaint for Lindsey to file in federal court in an effort to save the county money. But he strongly denied that he recruited Lindsey to file the suit.

During his presentation attorney Wayne Kendall pointed to testimony from depositions in which two county commissioners indicated that Bennett had asked Lindsey to file the lawsuit. Bennett countered that neither of those commissioners, Steve Brown and Robert Horgan, were present when he had conversations about the lawsuit over the phone with Lindsey.

The ethics complaint also charged that Bennett improperly benefitted Lindsey by approving the payment of attorney’s fees in the case. Bennett, however, noted that not only were those fees ordered to be paid by the federal judge in the case, but also that he had not negotiated those fees, since they were part of the deal brokered with Lindsey and the private law firm representing the county in that lawsuit.

Bennett said while he agreed that the fees requested by Lindsey were “reasonable” he did not authorize the payment; instead the payment was negotiated by the private law firm’s attorney and then authorized in a court order.

Bennett said he signed off on an invoice to pay Lindsey’s fees because not to do so would in essence create a situation in which he was violating an order of the federal court judge in the case.

The two and a half hour hearing Wednesday was contentious at times as Kendall, who brought the complaint on behalf of two local residents, parried and sparred with Bennett.
At one point near the end of the evening though, the two came to some common ground. Bennett noted that he had gained no money or any other advantage from his actions in the matter, a point to which Kendall agreed.

The lone vote against dismissing the complaint came from ethics board member Dan Langford, who said he wanted to dismiss seven of the charges but take time to consider the other two, as the county ordinance allows up to 15 days for such considerations.

Shortly after, ethics board member Scott Rowland moved to dismiss the entire complaint based on insufficient evidence. Ethics board chair Sheila Huddleston joined Rowland in voting in favor of dismissing the entire complaint.

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