The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners voted to censure Commissioner Todd Levent on Aug. 20 after an independent investigation found that the District 3 representative skirted the state’s Open Records Act to get information about District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills and provide it to a campaign opponent.
The censure resolution, which was put together by Thomas Bever of Smith, Gambrell and Russell, LLP and recapped the findings of the investigation, alleged that Levent violated the Georgia Open Records Act, the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act -- a state law which makes it a felony for a public officer to steal public records -- policies contained in the Forsyth County Employee Handbook and the county’s IS&T policy.
“The three actions that were approved by our prior unanimous vote were for censure, ethics panel and referral to an outside agency,” Chairwoman Laura Semanson said during Thursday’s regular meeting. “So, this is simply the censure portion of it, which is the professional reprimand.”
Commissioners discussed the matter publicly for the first time during Thursday’s regular meeting, with District 2 Commissioner Dennis Brown saying he wished the investigation included interviews with all the parties involved.
The investigation found that Levent had accessed emails and records of Mills without her knowledge or going through the state’s Open Records Act, sent a county-generated list of constituent emails to his campaign email address and passed those email addresses and other information to Brandy Bevis, a candidate who was running against Mills for the District 4 in the seat’s Republican primary in June.
Nine people were interviewed by Bever and Spearhead Investigations, including all commissioners except for Levent, who has been on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners since 2011 and previously served as commission chairman in 2017 and 2018. Levent directed investigators to his legal counsel, who scheduled an interview with Bever’s team for Thursday, June 25 before a family emergency forced the meeting to be “canceled and not rescheduled due to the uncertainty of the situation.”
Investigators submitted their report to the county on June 30 but said “should Levent agree to an interview in the future, the report will be supplemented accordingly.”
“I understand we’ve talked about it, but in a perfect world, I would rather have an interview as part of the record from Commissioner Levent and [Mrs.] Bevis, if possible,” Brown said, “and I understand the limitations here of why those haven’t been forthcoming, but normally, in my long career, we’ve always tried to get all of the information before we took any action.”
Semanson responded that she “understood that sentiment, but I would say you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make them drink, and there were numerous occasions over the last several months where there was opportunity and where contact was made specifically to schedule an interview and they were either not responded to, canceled or postponed.”
District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper said the original motion in July gave Levent an additional two weeks to respond but he did not do so.
“So, there was extra time given and extra effort in consideration, and again, that did not happen,” she said.
On Friday morning, Levent detailed his issues with the inquiry, why he had not been able to meet with investigators and said he believed the censure was political retaliation for his stance on earlier issues, including opposing the Sharon Springs Cityhood Movement, and a deposition he had given against Semanson in a lawsuit.
Levent said while he had requested information about Cindy Jones Mills from Carol Haag, assistant to the BOC, he believed his request constituted a verbal open records request and did not find out until after-the-fact that information was obtained from Mills’s emails.
“What I believed it was that I was talking to an assistant to the commissioners, that is very routine for us to ask her to help us get things, write things, whatever assistance that we needed, and if it became something that was an open, requestable item, that they have the training and the knowledge to decipher the two and deal with them correctly,” Levent said.
He said Haag said she could access the information from Mills’s emails and he asked her if she was allowed to, “giving her the opportunity to say, ‘no, you’re right, I’ll get it from another location.’”
Even in the response from Haag for a request for emails between Mills and Haag, the cover letter in response referenced other staff.
Levent said he was not told that the information came from Mills’s emails.
“I would have reported her,” he said, “I would have returned the email to her and I’d have gone to one of the other staff members to ask for it since she opted not to.”
Levent also questioned why, compared to what he was facing, Haag had been suspended for a day and moved to a newly-created position in the county’s voter registrations and elections department despite not previously working in that department.
When the commission voted on the item at a recent work session, he said he recused himself “because none of it sounded right, smelled right and why would we be rewarding this behavior.” Levent previously recused himself during a meeting Aug. 6 when commissioners discussed the Haag’s new position because “he's mixed up in something weird that may have moved her to this position.”
For the information given to Bevis, Levent said over the years, he has helped her find information about issues in the county, and at the time she was looking for information on sewer lines and information related to a vote on land for a wastewater treatment plant in Northeast Forsyth.
He said he “never opened up or looked at” the information and did not know it contained the “very small email list” of some of the speakers at a county town hall where the wastewater treatment plant was discussed.
As for not being interviewed for the investigation, Levent said he and his attorney had a scheduled time to be interviewed but it was canceled the morning of due to a family emergency with his attorney.
He said the last he had heard from his attorney, they were awaiting a response from Bever, and as of Friday, Levent was working to find correspondences between the two.
Levent said he was open to meeting “at any time, any place, but I just wanted my attorney to be there like anybody would.”
Levent said he could not say what his next action should be related to the issue “but we’re going to take this head-on before they totally destroy me without due cause.”
Previous findings from the inquiry and background
In early May, commissioners approved launching a formal inquiry into the issue and approved up to $20,000 for the investigation at a meeting.
In July, commissioners voted 3-0 to approve supplemental funding for the investigation, with District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper saying at the time the cost was “around $38,000.”
The report looked at the factual findings of the inquiry, conclusions of law over the matter, options available to the board of commissioners and documents used in the investigation. The conclusions of law portion of the report was redacted in the copy given to the Forsyth County News in July.
Per the report, in March, Levent asked county employee Carol Haag to “retrieve a very specific email” where Mills had reportedly called Brent Cook, a former employee with the Georgia Department of Transportation, a liar. Haag “located one from a year or two prior which she thought Mr. Levent was referring to” and left a copy in his office.
In April, Levent reportedly asked for another set of emails between Mills and Lynn Rashbaum, a constituent who “had become involved in a new wastewater treatment plan for that district.” When Haag asked if an open records request was needed, “Mr. Levent replied that he could get any of the information he wanted because he was a commissioner.” Haag later gave Levent nine emails between Mills and Rashbaum.
Later that month, Mills asked Haag for a list of emails from those who had been against a planned wastewater plant in North Forsyth. Haag said she had a list that she provided to Levent made up of those who had signed in at the town hall or filled out a question and answer form for attendees.
Haag told Mills that Levent had her gather email addresses anytime there were “big contentious issues,” even if the emails were primarily for voters in Mills’s district.
It was around that time that Mills found out about the previous emails Haag provided to Levent.
“These revelations led to this formal inquiry,” the reported stated.
The inquiry also looked into whether information in an email between Mills and Rashbaum was used in a campaign flyer about the wastewater treatment facility by Brandy Bevis, who ran against Mills in the Republican primary for the seat in June. The flyer stated that Mills and Chairwoman Laura Semanson were planning “to bring this sewer plant to reality just after the commissioner election on June 9, 2020.”
The report said “the source of the language in the flyer cannot be determined with certainty” since the information was also available online on the county’s website.
Another constituent, Bo Slaughter, who had been opposed to the original plans for the plant, said he began receiving emails from Bevis’s campaign in April and was “bombarded by the people who were opposed to the wastewater treatment plant.” Slaughter also said he was surprised to get the email from Bevis since he had not given his address to the campaign.
Slaughter said around that time he had a phone conversation with Levent and “among other things, Mr. Levent urged Mr. Slaughter not to vote for Commissioner Mills.”
Per the report, “Ms. Bevis declined to be interviewed or answer questions absent a subpoena.” Bevis did not respond to a request for comment from the Forsyth County News at that time.
In May, Levent spoke with county personnel director Pat Carson about the emails and said he had not looked at them and “he doesn’t feel that he should have to submit an open records act for emails coming into the Board of Commissioner’s office.”
Levent had previously used the open records act to access information, according to the report.
“Mr. Levent’s explanation does not account for why he asked Ms. Haag to obtain the documents if he had not looked at them,” the report said. “Nor does it explain why he used the open records act to seek records from a fellow commissioner in the past but did not do so in these two instances.”
The report further said that Levent’s answer also “did not explain why he did not seek to find out, one way or the other,” whether he had authority as a commissioner to access another commissioner’s emails.
When speaking with interviewers, all other members of the county commission said they did not believe a commissioner could retrieve information from another commissioner’s county email account without that commissioner’s knowledge and that they do not use county-generated lists for campaign purposes.
Also, by not going through the open records act, information like email addresses would have been redacted, which was not done in the records Levent accessed.
The report found “that none of the information Commissioner Levent obtained via Ms. Haag was used for county business.”
“Rather, the timing and sequence of these events suggest that it was used in the Bevis campaign against Commissioner Mills,” the report said. “However, without the benefit of interviews with either Commissioner Levent or Ms. Bevis, and without the ability to subpoena documents or testimony, this investigation was unable to reach a definite conclusion.”
Board members approved a memo on May 7 stating that officials would need to use the open records act for securing information from emails going forward.
Before taking the vote, Semanson said even if commissioners did not approve the memo “it does not in any way diminish that this is, in fact, the law.”
Also at that meeting, when responding to a question from District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper over whether accessing a commissioner’s email “without that commissioner's consent or knowledge” was against the law, County Attorney Ken Jarrard, who has been recused for the matter since he represents all commissioners, said there were “legal issues raised by that, some of them that I am comfortable talking to you about and some I am not.”
“I will say that this policy speaks to law with respect to getting communications, even if they're public documents, that involve staff members,” he said at the time, “and this is the policy that the county has adhered to and will adhere to in the future.”