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Lawsuit filed over chamber funding

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.

Comments

Mack711 1 year, 4 months ago

Would like to know what the Chamber did with our Tax money and who got it. After all it is our tax money and we should know what is being done with it. The Chamber is suppose to represent the best intrest of the citizens of Gwinnett. It is time for the BOE, the Chamber and the BOC to come clean on this issue and answer to the citizens and taxpayers of Gwinnett just what they are doing with our funds. It may be time to 'clean house' at all levels of this investigation just like with the previous BOC..

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rco1847 1 year, 4 months ago

aahahhahahhahha The Chamber of Communists, that bastion of Republican Aristocracy, is now on the hot seat. I hope criminal charges will follow as they shoul but in this county it's doubtful. Their National organization was promoting the outsourcing of American jobs and showing people how to outsource jobs and get tax breaks for doing it.

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JRegan 1 year, 4 months ago

@Mack711 - Just to be accurate the Chamber does not represent Gwinnett citizens, the Chamber is a private membership organization. This is at the crux of the problem, taxpayer money is given to the Chamber, then the Chamber determines what issues to support or oppose with no accountablity to citizens.

Most Gwinnett cities contribute money to the Chamber, county goverment contributes $500k and GCPS contribute $150K - none of these government entities have an accounting of how the money is used. The Chamber has only made wild, outlandish claims of creating $800 M of business development over the past 5 years. That's a significant impact during the worst recession of our lives. If the impact has been so great, why has Gwinnett experienced one of the highest rates of foreclosure and why has our unemployment rate been equal to the country's and only marginally less than Georgia's?

If the Chamber has done such a wonderful job, why won't they provide hard facts, figures, and documents to prove it?

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Mack711 1 year, 4 months ago

Thanks for the information. However they have no accounting practices in place to say what our tax dollars are used for. if the Chamber is private then get the funds from the private sector, not the taxpayer.

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CD 1 year, 4 months ago

It's private when it's convenient, but when they need your tax dollars...well, hey, we're all friends, right?

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MichelleCouch 1 year, 4 months ago

Actually, chambers are usually classified as a 501C6 organization under the IRS/tax code. They represent their business members and are required to publish an annual report. Any member of the chamber should have access to the annual report. Chambers also have by-laws which you should be able to obtain a copy of through the Sec of State.

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BuzzG 1 year, 4 months ago

What is really ugly is that Wilbanks is giving money earmarked to educating our children to this private organization. Look at your property tax bill. You see the amount designated for education and you feel good about educating your children. But this is a fairy tale. Some of this money is going to the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, a private organization which has nothing to do with educating our children.

Sabrina Smith is a real hero. She must be offspring of Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

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BufordGuy 1 year, 4 months ago

When I look at the school portion of my tax bill it doesn't make me feel good about educating my kids, it makes me sick to my stomach!

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kevin 1 year, 4 months ago

Just look at who runs that chamber and you will see where your money is going. They formed this thing so put on a good "face" but in reality it is a side show of wasting spending and no one there will show you their records since they call themselves "private." The BOE and the BOC have been keeping this giveaway under wraps for a long time. And they all claim to be such holy saints!

Never re-elect people. Use your common sense.

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R 1 year, 4 months ago

"Plus, the county commission should have access to the records, according to an agreement signed when the funding was approved."

Well this will be entertaining ...

Citizens have to bring a lawsuit simply to force someone to comply with a county signed agreement. How crass...

Lets not forget to ask how much our CIDs give the chamber either, those bastions of self taxing projects that then really get matching FEDERAL or STATE (Or BOTH!) Grants for landscaping... From the same STATE government which can't fully fund it's schools.

The Boardwalk on the Jersey Coast may be gone for awhile,

But the "find the pea under the shell" game lives on...

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MichelleCouch 1 year, 4 months ago

CID's are self-taxing business districts - so the fact that most of them actually fund an annual sponsorship for Partnership Gwinnett - does make perfect sense. The businesses within their respective districts agree to self-tax for the purposes of transportation improvements and economic development. The CID members entrust their elected Board of Directors to be responsible stewards of their tax dollars (although this does not happen). I worked for one of the Gwinnett CID's for a few years, and I do support their relationships with their respective chambers. Their goals are very similar when it comes to driving economic development,and both are primarily business organizations that are responsible for serving their member base.

Most municipalities also fund an annual sponsorship to Partnership Gwinnett.

Although I certainly do understand some of the concerns that surround the Gwinnett Chamber (and believe you me - I do understand them), I would hate to think where our county would be without them and their influence. The Chamber does do many positive things for the County, not only on local levels, but State and National levels also.

In the long run, we do live in one of the greatest counties in Georgia. The Gwinnett Chamber has been instrumental in helping build Gwinnett's success. Yes, we have our struggles right now, but what community doesn't - given our hard economic climate.

Again, like any organization, they have their issues and shortcomings - but you can't disregard the positive things that they have done for our community.

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truthtopower 1 year, 4 months ago

Question to all you naysayers: say I contribute $50 to something and the return is $75 -- my investment has netted me $25. (e.g. I spent $ to make $). Now say that money given by the school system and others to Partnership Gwt has helped land NCR and many other large corporations with high paying jobs, that has (1) increased the tax digest; (2) increased sales tax proceeds; (3) increased other revenue, and (4) the quality of our community with equates to a net return exponentially greater than the initial school investment. Who is the winner and who is the loser?

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jack 1 year, 4 months ago

As no verifiable figures are available to corroborate your four bullet points, it cannot be determined who're the winners or losers.
Thus, the point of the lawsuit.

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ccmcclurg 1 year, 4 months ago

As an initial matter, the GA Const. specifically rejects this argument. The Supreme Court has specifically denied this rationale, and referred to this position as flawed, unlawful, and otherwise unconstitutional. The "ends justify the means" philosophy in the governmental arena is a petri dish for abuse, waste, fraud, and corruption (See Gwinnett County, circa previous ten years). As a follow on, there is exactly zero proof of the Chamber's efficient use of "your" money. In fact, if you believe the ROI they allege, they would be returning a yield exponentially greater than Mr. Madoff. If they were that savvy, they wouldn't need tax dollars (their private membership contributions would be historical). Sunshine is the best disinfectant!

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rco1847 1 year, 4 months ago

@ J Regan - If what you say is correct - That the Cahamber is a private membership organization, do they operate as a 501(3) c corp? Otherwise, our county is giving public funds to a private organization and a contract for performance and consideration should be available for review.

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rco1847 1 year, 4 months ago

It's ironic that when the Airport deal was a hot topic we all felt as if the private organization was a bunch of crooks. We couldn't understand why our officials would even talk to them. Now we know that the crooks were on both sides of the table and they were all reaching for our money which would be used against our will. And Gwinnett voters will keep electing them.

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