LAWRENCEVILLE -- A government watchdog made the first move Monday in a lawsuit alleging misappropriation of government funds from the county commission and school board.
Sabrina Smith, of Citizens for Responsible Government, sued the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, Partnership Gwinnett and the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners Monday seeking access to chamber records regarding how funds are spent.
For months, the Suwanee woman has criticized the government and school board for giving money to the chamber's Partnership Gwinnett effort, since the chamber has been involved in lobbying efforts.
Smith held a press conference on the issue days before a vote in July about a regional sales tax aimed at funding transportation, which the Chamber of Commerce supported. And her efforts continued through the fall, when a ballot measure on charter schools was before voters. The chamber originally came out against the referendum but chose to remain neutral after Gov. Nathan Deal announced his support.
"They are spending money on lobbyists and advertising," said Chris McClurg, Smith's attorney. "It's against the law for them to use your tax money to defeat your will."
While public records show that the county government has given $500,000 annually to the Partnership Gwinnett effort for years, and the school board has funded two employees at a rate of $150,000 annually, Smith has requested Chamber of Commerce records on how the money is spent.
According to McClurg, the efforts have been rebuffed, with chamber officials saying the entity is not subject to open records law. But McClurg plans to argue to a judge that the records should be open to the public because the county government has essentially outsourced its economic development functions to the chamber. Plus, the county commission should have access to the records, according to an agreement signed when the funding was approved.
"I'm very suspicious that they are fighting so hard to keep these records undisclosed," he said, adding that he intends to eventually sue commissioners, school board members, School Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks and Chamber of Commerce President Jim Maran personally, seeking that they reimburse the governments the millions of dollars "misappropriated."
He said he expects Attorney General Sam Olens to intervene. In an opinion last month, Olens said school boards cannot expend funds -- either directly or indirectly through another affiliation -- to support or oppose a ballot measure.
County and chamber officials did not respond to emails seeking comment.