After a two-day hearing, members of an ethics panel voted to give Forsyth County District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent a warning in a split, 2-1 decision from panelists Amelia Phillips, Linwood Gunn and Edwin Saginar, who are attorneys from outside of Forsyth County.
In an ethics evidentiary hearing, held on Monday, March 1 and Tuesday, March 2, attorneys delved into whether or not Levent directed a county employee, Carol Balcome, to access emails from District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills after a complaint was filed in 2020 by District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson, who served as BOC chairwoman at the time.
“We have reached a non-unanimous decision, and we concluded that there was a violation of Article 3, Section 1 and Article 3, Section 8, and we believe the appropriate action will be a warning,” Gunn said. “We will put that in writing as soon as we can.”
According to information on the county’s website, Article 3, Section 1 states that commissioners and other elected officials shall Uphold the Constitution, laws, and regulations of the United States, the State of Georgia, the County of Forsyth, and all governments therein and never be a party to their evasion.”
Article 3, Section 8 says elected officials should “Never engage in other conduct which is unbecoming to a member or which constitutes a breach of public trust.”
A prior investigation — performed by Thomas Bever of Smith, Gambrell and Russell, LLP, along with Spearhead Investigations, both out of Atlanta — 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.
Per the report, in March 2020, Levent asked county employee Carol Balcome, formerly Carol Haag, assistant to the board of commissioners, to “retrieve a very specific email” where Mills had reportedly called Brent Cook, a former employee with the Georgia Department of Transportation, a liar. Balcome “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 Balcome 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.” Balcome later gave Levent nine emails between Mills and Rashbaum.
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. The flyer stated that Mills and Semanson were planning “to bring this sewer plant to reality just after the commissioner election on June 9, 2020.”
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.
In early May, commissioners approved launching a formal inquiry into the issue and approved up to $20,000 for the investigation.
In July, commissioners voted 3-0 – with Semanson, District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper and then-District 2 Commissioner Dennis Brown in favor and Levent and Mills recused – to approve supplemental funding for the investigation, with District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper saying at the time the cost was “around $38,000.”
At a meeting in August, commissioners voted 3-0, by the same votes, to censure Levent.
Along with the censure, the motion kicked off the ethics panel process and allowed information to be sent to the office of Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr.
During the hearing, attorneys representing Levent, as the respondent, and Semanson, as the complainant, were allowed to call and cross-examine witnesses before giving closing statements.
In his closing statement’s Daran Burns, who was representing Levent, said Levent had sent a list of email addresses from the wastewater meeting and other information, like meeting agendas and minutes related to the discussion, to Bevis, but he had not opened the attachments before sending and did not know the emails were listed.
“Mistakes happen, accidents happen, but that doesn’t amount to improper intent to use county information for an improper purpose,” he said.
Burns continued that, as a commissioner, Levent was not required to use the Open Records Act and the “only thing that he did was he offended community norms.”
“But that’s not what is in this complaint, and you can dislike what he did, but that does not mean that he violated his oath and ethics under this ordinance,” he said.
When called to testify, Levent said he had forwarded the information to Bevis so she would have the agendas and minutes, which were accessible on the county website. He said he did not access the information on Bevis’ behalf but did send it to her when she couldn’t find the information online.
“I said, ‘You know, they sent me something about a week ago or less that had to do with the sewer plant. I don’t know if that will help you or not, but I can always forward it - the stuff that’s on the website’ - so I forwarded it to her,” Levent said. “The rest of the stuff, I was not working with her campaign.”
Bevis also testified during the hearing and said there was never a conversation between her and Levent about receiving county emails or email addresses and she had never requested them.
She said she received the email in question in April and they contained information related to the previously-proposed wastewater plant, including a spreadsheet of information of attendees, which she sent campaign flyers to.
“When I put my flyer together, I sent an email out to everyone. The flyer I was creating, I was planning to do it for driveway drops, and I had originally intended on sending it out to neighbors in my neighborhood, so I did use it,” Bevis said. “I’m sorry, it was sent to me. I thought it was for me. Maybe I should have picked up the phone and asked, but I’m regretful.”
She said the email was the only one she received from Levent during her campaign.
When asked of his conversations with Balcome about the email referencing Cook, Levent said he never directed Balcome to access Mills’ emails.
“She said to me that, ‘I can just get it out of Commissioner Mills’ email account,’ and my words were to her [were] are you allowed to, and she replied, ‘I have her password,’” Levent said. “I reiterated that there’s other staff members in it if you check with them [to see] if they’d be happy to release a copy.”
Responding to a question from Burns, Levent said he did not intend to go around county rules and said neither he or Balcome had broken county policies since there were none at the time.
“I don’t believe I did, and if you’re just talking policy, I don’t believe Carol [Balcome] did either because there wasn’t a policy in place at that time,” he said.
Responding to questions from Bever, who was representing Semanson in the hearing, Balcome said in the fallout of the emails, she received a one-day suspension from then-County Manager Eric Johnson and was moved to a newly-created, similar position with the county’s department of voter registrations and elections.
When asked by Bever whether she agreed with a statement that she had never told Levent to submit an open records request, she said she disagreed and the statement was untrue.
She said she was uncomfortable with the request but went along with it because she was a subordinate, though she said she wished she had spoken with a superior.
“I wish I had mentioned it to someone else,” Balcome said. “When I saw he wasn’t on the email, that’s when I became uncomfortable, and that’s when I should have let someone know or tell him that he’s not on it and to get an open records request.”
Balcome said she had asked Levent if he needed to file an open records request for one of the emails, he said ‘well, I’m a commissioner, and I can get any kind of this information I want.”
Mills also spoke on the incident, saying she was shocked when the list of emails went to Levent since he had not attended the town hall where the information was collected.
“Do I think that this is an egregious abuse of power? I most definitely think it’s an egregious abuse of power,” she said.
Mills said usually when open records requests are filed, County Attorney Ken Jarrard’s office lets commissioners know that someone is asking for the information, but, since no request was filed for the emails, she was unaware until speaking with Balcome.
She said, as an elected official, her emails were open to anyone who filed an open records request but felt it was unfair that citizens’ information, like Rashbaum’s, was not redacted as it would have been had an open records request been filed.
“I think, as a citizen, that Lynn Rashbaum has the right for protection, and I think when he abused his office and went in and took her email, that that put him subject to be harshly punished,” Mills said.
When asked what she felt the punishment should be, she said “I don’t think that someone would be in office if they think they have the right to harm a personal citizen.”
Semanson echoed that she did not have the authority to go into other commissioners’ emails for information or to send a list of constituent emails to an outside source.
“That would be an abuse of office, in my opinion,” she said. “It would be an egregious breach of trust for the citizens. It’s that kind of thing that makes people distrust politicians. It makes it incredibly hard to govern when the citizens feel like they can’t trust their leaders.”