Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fulton tax commissioner goes nuclear on AJC, state reps

Posted By on Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 3:25 PM

Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand
  • Fulton County Tax Commissioner
  • Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand
Over the last few days, the AJC published several pieces about Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand transferring tax liens to third parties.

They're interesting stories, and part of a multi-year series of articles about metro Atlanta property taxes that have scrutinized Ferdinand. The pieces serve a public good while also making homeowners grit their teeth with anger. Anti-Fulton state lawmakers will probably pick up the articles and use them as ammunition in their ongoing effort to crack down on the county. That includes legislation making the tax commissioner an appointed, not elected position.

That legislation and the recent AJC stories apparently didn't sit well with Ferdinand. This morning, CL was cc'ed on an email from the tax commissioner. Attached were scanned copies of letters to state Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, and state Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, who chair the Fulton County legislative delegation under the Gold Dome.

In the letters (which we've embedded after the jump), Ferdinand says discussions about his salary - he reportedly made nearly $350,000 in 2011, making him Georgia's highest-paid elected official - have devolved into attacks on his character, which he claims is a "clear indication that this campaign for 'change and reform' solely directed at my office is more of a personal agenda, rather than a public one." He then claims that some of the actions by the AJC and state lawmakers are "simply retaliatory."

He goes on to say that the AJC failed to disclose in its articles that the commissioner's office has placed several liens in past years on properties owned by Cox Enterprises, the paper's parent company, and which were transferred to Vesta Holdings. Among those properties, Ferdinand says, was a "luxury hanger" at Fulton County Airport-Brown Field. He also notes that Cox Enterprises is the beneficiary of development authority exemptions, "a privilege usually reserved for new companies coming into the county, a practice now being challenged." Ferdinand says the exemptions helped Cox save more than $2 million in taxes. (I'm curious why Ferdinand didn't lob these accusations in an op-ed that appeared in the AJC a few days ago. We asked and will update if we hear word. UPDATE, 10:54 p.m. Ferdinand tells me he hadn't seen the liens at the time.)

He also claims that sponsors of the legislation have, in the past, had liens placed on their properties or transferred by Ferdinand's office for non-payment of taxes.

We asked AJC Managing Editor Bert Roughton if the paper knew about the alleged conflict of interest prior to publishing the articles. He said in an email to CL that the paper started looking into the liens issue "as a matter of important public interest."

"Delving deeply into the manner in which public officials conduct their affairs is essential to what we do and in the best traditions of American journalism," he wrote. "To suggest that we were motivated by anything else is absurd and a distraction from the important questions raised by our reporting. We knew nothing about our parent company's property taxes one way or the other."

Ferdinand closed his letters with the hopes that everyone involved can return to "civil and intelligent discourse about public policy regarding taxes." We'll see if that happens - or if the missive only spurred the majority Republican delegation into taking action. We're reaching out to Riley and Hill to get their take on Ferdinand's letter.

UPDATE, 11:54 p.m. Roughton notes in an email that the paper has written about these issues "long before December 2010." That's around the date the lien was placed on Cox Enterprises' "luxury hanger" and when Ferdinand says the AJC's Open Records requests started arriving in his office.

Fulton County Tax Commissioner letter to Fulton delegation re: AJC coverage, alleged defamation by thomaswheatley

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