Forsyth County District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent accessed emails and records of District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones 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 a candidate who was running against Mills, according to a law firm’s investigation.
The Forsyth County News obtained a copy of the report of formal inquiry performed by Thomas Bever of Smith, Gambrell and Russell, LLP, along with Spearhead Investigations, both out of Atlanta.
Commissioners approved launching a formal inquiry into the issue and approved up to $20,000 for the investigation at a meeting in early May.
Nine people were interviewed, including all of the county commissioners, except for Levent. Levent, who has been on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners since 2011 and previously served as commission chairman in 2017 and 2018, 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.”
The team 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.”
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.
Per the report, in March, Levent asked county employee 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. 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.
“Ms. Mills stated she was ‘baffled’ as to why Mr. Levent would need a list of her constituents when he did not even attend the Dec. 12, 2018 town hall [where the plant was discussed],” the report said.
The list created by county staff was 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 flyer erroneously claimed that Ms. Mills and the Board were planning to bring the plant to the controversial location just after the June 9 election; however, this was not true because an alternative site had already been identified,” the report said.
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.
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.”
Levent told the Forsyth County News on Tuesday he did not pull any emails illegally and wasn’t aware that Haag had pulled the list of emails from Mills’s account until after the fact.
Levent said when running his first re-election campaign in 2014 he had purchased a list of 17,500 email addresses in Forsyth County for his campaign – which he said was shown in campaign financial disclosures from that time – and had also gathered another 10,000 from sign-ups at his businesses and those that have signed up at meetings or his email list.
He said the emails he accessed “may have shown discussion by other commissioners of [an] executive privileged land acquisition item” and that the other commissioners were trying to shut that down.
“As far as I’m concerned, I found something that I was going to be a whistleblower on, and they’re doing the best that they can to shut that down the hardest they can, but that’s not going to stop me,” Levent said. “And they spent $20,000 of taxpayer money to shut me down just starting the investigation.”
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 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.”
At a work session on Tuesday, July 14, Forsyth County Commissioners voted to have Jarrard’s office “draw up a resolution of censure of reprimand” regarding the results of the investigation, direct that the report of formal inquiry be delivered to an independent agency for independent review.” Cooper made a motion for Semanson to bring ethics complaints based on the results.
The item was approved on a time-sensitive basis with a 3-0 vote. Levent, who left the meeting for the duration of the discussion, and Mills recused.
During the meeting, commissioners did not say which commissioner had reportedly accessed the emails, whose emails were accessed, or how the emails had been obtained.