Ga. sheriff used public office, children's charity to aid campaignThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution — By Meris Lutz The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Feb. 14-- ATLANTA-The email, sent from a Cobb County, Ga., sheriff's employee to the district attorney's office, sought volunteers for the sheriff's annual Corn Boilin' event to raise money for the Cobb County Youth Museum.
"This is a great opportunity to meet tons of folks and it is for a great cause!" it read.
The great cause was, in fact, Sheriff Neil Warren himself.
Emails, interviews and campaign finance records show Warren used the children's charity to solicit volunteers and donations for a fundraiser that brought in thousands of dollars for his reelection effort, while neither he nor his campaign contributed anything directly to the nonprofit museum.
Some of those volunteers and donors said they were unaware of the political nature of the event.
Much of the organizing for the Corn Boilin' was done by public employees working out of the Sheriff's Office on county time, emails show. Documents also raise questions about the use of in-house services from the jail kitchen for food preparation and inmate labor for cleanup after the fundraiser.
Warren's campaign finances are currently under investigation by the state ethics commission. Subpoenas issued in the case strongly suggest the agency is looking at potential misuse of county resources.
David Emadi, executive director of the commission, said the investigation limits his ability to comment substantively on details of the case.
"That being said, the Commission is aware of the issues and questions raised by the AJC, and I am optimistic that our investigation will be concluded with a final resolution at our next Commission meeting in the Spring," Emadi wrote in an email.
Doug Chalmers, an attorney representing Warren's campaign, said his client is cooperating with the state's investigation and has asked ethics staff to "provide training for the Sheriff's Office and the county staff to help ensure a clear understanding of what activities are permitted given the hybrid nature of this event."
"The sheriff is taking responsibility and working with the commission staff to ensure that there is complete separation between campaign and government activities," he added.
The campaign declined to address emails that suggest the use of the jail kitchen, on-duty deputies or inmate labor.
For example, one deputy worked 17 hours the day of the event, he wrote in an email to a superior about his time card.
"Clock out at 22:45 pm Monday for the corn boiling," he wrote. "Clock in at 05:30 today have to go clean up at fair ground this morning with inmate detail."
The fundraiser was held at Jim Miller Park, otherwise known as the Cobb County fairgrounds.
The Sheriff's Office refused a request for documentation related to inmate work details the week of the Corn Boilin', citing an exemption in Georgia's Open Records law for sensitive security information.
"It is our belief that these records ... would reveal working locations, number of inmates and number of persons supervising each work detail," wrote Commander Robert Quigley, who oversees Open Records compliance for the Sheriff's Office. "Disclosing this information creates a risk to the safety and security of both inmates and those supervising the crews."
Quigley has also worked on the sheriff's campaign, according to financial disclosures.
Chalmers said the official Corn Boilin' promotional materials, including the invitations and reservation form, clearly indicate that it was a campaign fundraiser that also benefits the museum.
But much of the messaging that went out on email and social media only mentioned the museum. Those promotions included fliers posted by the sheriff's Facebook page, which is operated by county staff, according to a recent legal settlement.
When Cobb District Attorney Joyette Holmes saw the request for Corn Boilin' volunteers, she encouraged her subordinates to participate, emails show.
In response to a request for comment, Holmes wrote in a statement that she supports staff participation in "community and civic events."
"My understanding is that the Corn Boilin benefits children through the Cobb Youth Museum," Holmes said.
Commissioner Keli Gambrill said she did not know that ticket proceeds went to the Sheriff's campaign when she responded to an invitation to volunteer at the event from the county manager's executive assistant. That email did not mention the sheriff's reelection campaign either.
"I looked at it as just a way of serving my community and getting out and meeting my constituents," she said. "All I knew was that annually the sheriff had a corn boil and that it was a big event and it had been going on for a long time."
A county spokesman said the employee sent the email "During a break from her normal duties."
Mayfield Ice Cream was listed as an official sponsor of the event on a prominent banner displayed there.
A spokesperson for Dean Foods Company, which owns Mayfield Ice Cream, said it was approached about providing ice cream and other dairy products for purchase while also matching that purchase with donated product, which it did.
"In the case of this event, our intention was to support efforts to benefit the Cobb County Youth Museum," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "Nothing in the request inferred that the donated product would be considered a political contribution or endorsement for the candidate."
The company said it "strongly discourages" the use of company funds for political contributions.
Despite its donation, Mayfield is not listed as an "in kind" contributor on Warren's campaign finance disclosures.
Email: "I have everything in house"
Two weeks before the event, the food service director at the Cobb jail sent a message from his official email account to Sheriff Neil Warren's assistant at her Cobb County government email address.
"Just wanted to let you know that I have everything in house for the Corn Boil, except for Hot Dog Buns they will be in on Friday," he wrote. "We will bake the corn bread the day of and have it ready, early the morning of the (Corn Boilin')."
Summit Food Service, the private company that runs the jail kitchen, did not respond to questions about the email or the implied use of county facilities. The company is listed as an "in kind" contributor on the sheriff's most recent campaign filings.
"This past July, as we have done in the past, we used those funds to provide hot dogs, corn bread and utensils for a fundraiser benefiting the Youth Museum," Summit said in an emailed statement.
When it bid for the contract in 2015, Summit highlighted its support for the Corn Boilin' in its response to the county's request for proposals.
"For the last 4 years, we have sponsored the paper products for Sheriff Warren's Corn Boilin' Fundraiser for the Cobb County Youth Museum," the company's pitch reads.
Summit won the contract, which has been extended several times since. Cobb taxpayers have paid the company $6.9 million over the past two years for services at the jail.
"No money came directly ... from the campaign"
In July, Warren stood on stage at the Corn Boilin' and announced he would stand for office again in 2020, before presenting a giant novelty check for $10,000 to the museum in his own name.
Chalmers said the sheriff solicited donations directly to the museum "in connection with" the Corn Boilin', and therefore it was not misleading to claim that a portion of the proceeds from the event went to the charity.
"No money came directly to the youth museum from the campaign because the $10,000 commitment had been met," Chalmers said. Nor did Warren donate personally, according to a list of donors provided by the attorney.
Chalmers said in years past, the campaign has made up the difference when $10,000 could not be raised from other donors. In 2018, Warren's campaign donated $1,075 to the museum, according to financial disclosure reports. The year before, it gave $600.
In a statement, the youth museum expressed gratitude for all its donors over the years, but did not respond to specific questions about its decision to partner with a political campaign.
Chalmers would not say how much the most recent Corn Boilin' raised for the sheriff's campaign.
According to Warren's campaign finance disclosures, he collected $35,000 over the period that included the fundraiser, including about $6,000 in small donations. Tickets to the event, which was attended by hundreds of people, sell for $25 and do not have to be itemized in the report.
As for the emails from sheriff's employees and others promoting the event as a charitable fundraiser, Chalmers said: "Neither the Sheriff nor the campaign are responsible for what individuals sent out in their emails."
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Over the summer, The AJC reported on extensive irregularities in the sheriff's campaign finances, which were under investigation by the state ethics commission.
Since then, the commission has filed a formal complaint filed against Warren alleging he misspent nearly $20,000 in campaign funds. It also issued five subpoenas targeting the sheriff's campaign and public office, including employee schedules for the month of July going back several years.
In December, the ethics commission rejected the sheriff's bid to quash four out of five of those subpoenas. The campaign has dropped its objection to the fifth, which was to be decided in Cobb Superior Court, according to Emadi, the ethics director.
Emadi said Wednesday that Warren's campaign has "fully complied with all lawfully issued subpoenas" and turned over the relevant records. The next ethics commission meeting is tentatively scheduled for April 23.
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