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EXCLUSIVE: PART 1 - State Ethics Commission Charges David Simons with 38 Counts of Being an Unregistered Lobbyist; Failing to File Forms, or Filing Inaccurate Reports

Category: Local Govts & Politics

PHOTO: July 17, 2017 'Amended Complaint' by State of Georgia's Ethics Complaint against local political consultant David Simons of Simons Political Group.

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

September 21, 2017 – It has been an open case before the State Ethics Commission for more than three years. In May 2014, a Savannah member of the 'better government' organization Common Cause, Clint Murphy, filed a complaint with the State of Georgia’s Ethics Commission alleging that Savannah’s leading political consultant, David Simons (pictured) was in fact an unregistered lobbyist for a number of clients, including some of Savannah’s largest construction companies. At the time, Simons was also a candidate for President of Savannah-Chatham Public Schools Board of Education. 

Murphy also sent his initial complaint to local media companies, and it received general coverage. David Simons, who does business under the company name Simons Political Group, maintained that he was a “political consultant” and not a lobbyist, in interviews with the Savannah Business Journal. 

He has run political campaigns for many candidates in Chatham County and across the state, or provided various levels of support to candidates, including running fundraisers and handling direct mail efforts. 

For whatever reason, he registered as a Lobbyist in January 2015. He also began to file the required monthly reports that all Lobbyists must file, required to list his clients, his income from each, and his expenditures. 

However, according to the Ethics Commission, after a three-year investigation, Simons failed to disclose income and expenditures from clients on those reports and failed to register as a Lobbyist going back to at least 2012, according to an Amended Complaint the Commission has now issued, dated July 17, 2017. It outlines 38 specific violations of Georgia laws as a conclusion to its three-year investigation process. 

Simons did not register as a lobbyist in 2016, and has not filed any reports this year, either.  

The Amended Complaint was sent to Simons' Savannah attorney, Thomas M. Gore of Gore Law Firm, LLC. on Waters Ave., served at his office on July 12, 2017. 

However, today, Atty. Gore stated that he “does not represent David Simons on that matter. Try Oliver Maner," when contacted by the SBJ. As of 5 p.m. today, attempts to reach Simons’ attorney at Oliver Maner have been unsuccessful, and the name of a specific attorney representing Simons could not be confirmed.

Simons’ alleged clients for whom he was a lobbyist who are named in the Amended Complaint are both major construction companies — firms that were bidding on hundreds of millions in new school construction projects during the period of 2012 through 2015. Those projects are primarily funded with ESPLOST dollars. Both firms have also been successful bidders on projects with the City of Savannah, the Trade Center Authority and with Chatham County. 

Based on information put together by the Commission staff, including information received from several of Simon’s clients, the Ethic Commission has now charged Simons with the 38 specific counts of failing to register as a paid lobbyist in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, and failing to file required lobbying reports on income and expenditures in certain months, or filing reports but failing to disclose actual activities during a specific month. 

Bills Simons submitted to Elkins Construction, Inc. and Rives Worrell, Inc. (a.k.a. JE Dunn Construction) that outlined his lobbying activities are summarized in Exhibits by the Commission that are attached to the Amended Complaint, and received by the SBJ.  

Also included in documentation received is correspondence between Simons and representatives of those firms, and emails between Simons and leading political and business leaders in the Savannah area.  

The bills outline money he spent to ‘wine and dine’ local elected officials on behalf of his clients, and include lunches, dinners, Christmas dinners, golf, entertainment and travel costs.

In an interview this week with Atty. Robert Lane, who is the second highest member of the legal team at the Ethics Commission, they are “now in negotiations with his attorneys,” regarding the charges.

“If we are not successful, a full hearing will be held, probably in December,” Lane said. Negotiations can cover fines to be paid, agreements to plead guilty to avoid a full public hearing, and other penalties that the Ethics Commission can impose. Lane states that the Commission staff has determined that he did violate Georgia laws in numerous incidents. The hearing would allow the full Commission to hear those findings, and set the fines and penalties.

That hearing was set to be held today in open session, but was postponed to allow negotiation with Simons’ legal team to continue, said Lane.  

In multiple interviews with Simons over the past three years, after the initial complaint filed by Common Cause, he has maintained that he was a political consultant, operating under the business name Simons Political Group, LLC, and not a lobbyist. However, included in the Commission’s evidence is a screenshot of his business website dated May 6, 2014, that reads, “Simons Political Group is one of the preeminent lobbying firms in Georgia.” 

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, known as the Ethics Commission, began with the original May 6, 2014, complaint that Common Cause filed which alleged that Simons was lobbying, but was not registered to do so. And, Clint Murphy wrote: “Mr. Simons was in contact with certain members of the Chatham County Board of Education (Shawn Kashmar, Julie Wade, Larry Lower, Jenny Lambeth, Joe Buck) and the Superintendent of the Chatham County Public Schools System (Dr. Thomas Lockamy) on behalf of Rives Worrell Construction Company to arrange a meeting with said officials. The emails, obtained through open-record request clearly show that Mr. Simons was acting as a lobbyist for the interest of another in approaching these officials and doing so, he should be property registered as such with the Commission.” 

That complaint apparently got the ball rolling. Last year, when the SBJ continued to check back with the Commission on the status of the Simons’ case, Lane stated that they were still working on it because “the file keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission is led by Atty. Stefan Ritter, Executive Secretary, and Atty. Robert S. Lane, Deputy Executive Secretary. Ritter is the former Senior Asst. Attorney General of Georgia, brought over to the Ethics commission in 2014 to modernize that agency, and pursue a large backlog of cases and unpaid fines. 

Penalties can include fines – as much as $10,000 per incident - and being sanctioned by the Commission for violation of the Act. The Commission’s Amended Complaint states they are also seeking for Simons to file or amend all missing reports on clients, income and expenditures.  

The Specific Charges by the Ethics Commission

Simons was a candidate for the presidency of the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System during the 2014 general election cycle, an election won by current School Board President Jolene Byrne. There were five candidates in that race and Simons dropped out prior to the run-off Special Election, after garnering only 10% of the vote on election day.  

That candidacy made him subject to the jurisdiction and venue of the Commission, their Complaint explains, because the Act that created the Commission states the body was created “in order to protect the integrity of the democratic process and hold public officers accountable.”

“Additionally, Respondent was, at all times … was engaging in lobbying activities which would subject the Respondent to regulation by the Commission, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 21-5-70, et seq., thus also subjecting the Respondent to the jurisdiction and venue of this Commission,” they state. 

Georgia law requires all Lobbyists to register with the Commission prior to engaging in any lobbying activity. “Moreover, all registered lobbyists are subject to a very specific filing regimen that requires them to frequently report their lobbying expenditures which are expended on public officers in pursuit of influencing and/or opposing legislation, rules, regulations, and/or the awarding of government contracts. O.C.G.A. § 21-5-73,” according to the Act.

“In fact, the Georgia General Assembly specifically intended this prohibition and registration requirement to apply "When a person is hired or retained as an employee or agent or independent contractor and under the agreement of the parties the primary duties, or a substantial part of the duties, of the person will involve lobbying activities, the person shall register as a lobbyist before commencing lobbying activities,” states the Amended Complaint. 

One of the 38 charges states, “In this case, the Commission alleges, upon information and belief, that Respondent violated the Act in calendar year 2015 when, as a registered lobbyist (state level) pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 21-5-70 and subject to the lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements of O.C.G.A. §§ 21-5- 71(a)(2) and 21-5-73(b) (2015), he failed to disclose a lobbying expenditure associated with his hosting of a dinner for the Chatham County General Assembly Delegation at The Oceanaire Seafood Room (Atlanta) on January 29, 2015 with a disclosed cost of at least $1,600.00.”  A copy of Simon’s email to potential attendees was obtained by the Commission staff, sent in the prior December.

But, when Simons began to register as a Lobbyist in January 2015, and filed his monthly report, he failed to include any income, expenses or that activity.

But Simons’ expense bill for January 2015 for lobbying includes expenditures in the amount of $715.58,” based on documents obtained from Elkins Constructors, Inc. by the Commission, and reviewed by the SBJ.

Each charge outlines activity in a specific month for a specific client, based on Simons’ bills – information that he failed to file, while also failing to register as a lobbyist. For example, in one month in 2014, he billed Elkins Constructors, Inc. for expenditures in the amount of $1,051.57.  

There are also bills from 2014 sent to Rives Worrell, Inc. (a.k.a. JE Dunn Construction), he failed to disclose, and during a period he was not a registered lobbyist. 

Charge number 20 includes “a true and accurate copy of the Respondent's initial employment contract is attached hereto as Exhibit "6." A true and accurate copy of correspondence between Respondent and David Hamilton confirming the continuation of the Respondent's initial employment contract with Elkins Constructors, Inc. until January, 2014 is attached hereto as Exhibit "7,” according to documents the SBJ has received, as an independent contractor lobbyist.   

Violation 21 states Simons violated the Act in calendar year 2013 when, as a lobbyist pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 21-5-70 and subject to the lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements of O.C.G.A. §§ 21-5-7l(a), 21-5-71(5)(D), 21-5-71(5)(E), 21-5-71(5)(G), 21-5-73(d) (2013), he failed to register as a lobbyist (local/vendor level) for Rives Worrell, Inc. (a.k.a. JE Dunn Construction) and failed to disclose lobbying expenditures in the amount of $931.02 (approximate). See Exhibit 5 supra, Rives Worrell, Inc. lobbying expenditure summary.”

Documents from Elkins Constructors, Inc. were secured that include correspondence between Simons and David Hamilton of Elkins, “evidencing the scope the Respondent's lobbying activities on behalf of Elkins Constructors, Inc. in calendar year 2012,” as well, writes Lane in the Amended Complaint.

There is also a lobbying expenditure report Simons submitted to Rives Worrell that includes the names of those Simons met with.  

For a period of time during the years under review by the Ethics Commission, Simons was a paid lobbyist representing the Savannah Trade Center Authority, according to former General Manager Bob Coffey, “working on State appropriations we were seeking. I assumed he was registered properly.” 

On the Ethics Commission website where the reports filed by Lobbyists are available to the public, Simons was a registered Lobbyist from 2006 through 2010, and listed a number of clients - all now indicated as "terminated." They include Cancer Treatment Centers Of America, Construction Supplier's Association, Georgia Guard Insurance Trust, Georgia International and Maritime Trade Center Authority, Kronos Inc., Lifelink Of Georgia, Memorial University Medical Center, Newell Recycling, Savannah Chamber Of Commerce, Starbase Savannah Foundation, Inc, Titlemax Corporation, Town Of Thunderbolt.  

He then registered as a Lobbyist only for Jan, Feb and March of 2015, but lists no clients.  

One Email from Elkins Executive David Hamilton Giving Simons His Marching Orders

Included in the documentation developed by the Ethics Commission are emails. One email from David Hamilton, Executive Vice President of Elkins Construction, to Simons dated July 13, 2012, states: “Follow up to our meeting this morning. Dave – Take aways from our meeting this morning. You are going to follow up on these items: Open the door for me to contact Kachmar about the whole Program Management and in-house construction role; Contact Freeseman about the SCCPSS construction role – anyone else you can think of?’; Talk to Trip Tolleson about his role at the Chamber and “influence” regarding deals we are working on; Let Dr. Lockamy know we are behind the Lauer (sp?) campaign.

My follow up items:

- Give you a check for $250 for DeLoach and $100 Lauer

- Send Connie Hall a check $ ….. (not specified) 

- See if I can bundle some checks for Lauer.” 

The email concludes “Talk to you soon.”

A Simons Email with Dr. Lockamy

Another email two years later, dated April 16, 2014 from David Simons to Thomas Lockamy is entitled “Meeting with Rives Morrell." Simons wrote: "Sir, per our discussion today, these are potential dates when Rives Worrell would like to sit down for coffee with you on one of these mornings. Just let me know time and place.”  It then lists 4/21, 4/28, 4/29 and 4/30.

The next day, on April 17,2014 at 3:25 pm., Dr. Lockamy sent an email to Sabrina Scales – the head of Purchasing for SCCPSS – in which he forwards an email from David Simons, and asks her, “Is this accurate information?" referring to an attached email from Simons. 

Simons’ attached email to Lockamy was dated April 17, 2014 at 3:21 p.m., titled “School contractor problem.” Simons writes: “Turns out that Barton Mallow (not sure I’m spelling that right) pulled out of the Otis Brock school selection process because they could not come to terms with Michele Jervey, the minority contractor. Obviously, this needs to end sooner than later where these unscrupulous minority contractors hold the School Board and the legitimate contractors over a barrel.”

There is also an email from School Board member Shawn Kachmar in the email chain that day over that issue, sent to David Fields with SCCPSS.

The Ethics Commission included these emails, apparently, as evidence that Simons was a lobbyist.

Long List of Meetings/Activities with Local Officials, Judges Simons Reported to Clients

Two of the Exhibits by the Commission in its July 2017 Amended Complaint against Simons is a summary list of expenses Simons filed with Elkins Construction, LLC. and Rives E. Worrell company for meetings and activities he held on their behalf with local officials, state officials, and several judges. The list includes meals, golf and “entertainment” that runs from 2012 into 2015. (The accuracy of the list cannot be verified.)  

Judge Greg Sapp – Golf (multiple times), Dinner

Joe Buck – Coffee

Shawn Kashmar – Coffee, Dinner, other Meals, Entertainment, Travel Expenses

Lori Brady, Chatham County Commissioner –PGA Golf Dinner(s), Lunch, Dinner (more than 15 listings)

Mark Butler, DOL Commissioner – Dinner, Lunch

Steven Green, Chamber of Commerce - Dinner

Helen Stone, Chatham County Commissioner – Dinner(s), Meals, Entertainment

Judge Barker, Lunch

Brock/Shawn Kashmar – Golf, Meals, Entertainment

Judge Tim Walmsley – Reception

Senator Buddy Carter – (activity not listed)

Mayor Jason Buelterman – “Chatham Yrs”

Judge Williams – Lunch

Alderman Tony Thomas – Lunch

Larry Lower, School board member – Dinner w Lori Brady; Meals & Entertainment

Jim Collins, VP of Thomas & Hutton – Drinks

Tom Lockamy, School Board Superintendent – Lunch

Al Scott, Chairman of Chatham County Commission – Meals and Entertainment w Steven Green

Eric Johnson – Breakfast

Jenny Lambeth , School Board Member – Meals and Entertainment

Tony Center, Chatham County Commissioner – Meals and Entertainment

Sean Horgan, Reporter, Savannah Morning News – Meals and Entertainment

Chamber of Commerce Staff – Meals & Entertainment

Mayor Edna Jackson – Meals & Entertainment

State Rep. Ben Watson - Meals and Entertainment

Julie Gerbsch, School Board Member – Breakfast

Julie Wade, School Board Member – Lunch, Reception

Bob MeAlister – Trade Center Hotel lunch

Ellen Sprague – Lunch

State Rep. Bill Hitchens – Lunch

Pat Farrell, County Commissioner – Meals and Entertainment with Helen Stone and Judge Time Walmsley

Of note, School Board Member Shawn Kashmar is the Chairman of the Capital Improvement Committee (CIC) of the School Board which has oversight for all building construction, including ESPLOST and all capital improvements. The CIC committee brings recommendations to the full school board. 

Simon’s ‘VIP Dinner’ after Savannah-Chatham Day 2015

One event that the Commission’s staff includes as evidence of lobbying activity by Simons is an invitation for a “VIP Dinner” in January 2015. An email dated December 11, 2014 was sent to Eric Johnson, President of Hussey, Gay, Bell & DeYoung; Kevin Curtin with AT&T; Jamie McCurry at the Georgia Ports Authority; Tripp Tollison at SEDA, Jay Neely at Gulfstream; Bob Coffey at the Trade Center; Michael T. Owens, president of the Tourism Leadership Council; Courtney Hester at Southern Company; David Hamilton with Elkins Construction; and John Coleman. 

Simons wrote, “Once again, we are hosting a dinner on Thursday, January 29th for members of the local delegation and local elected officials at the Oceanaire Restaurant following the Chamber's Seafood Festival at the Atlanta Depot. The cost will be limited to no more than $400 per sponsor. Each sponsor will be allowed to bring two company representatives or guests as we are trying to keep the numbers down and make it a more intimate group. We have the private room at the Oceanaire this year. The dinner will begin around 8pm,” his email to recipients states.

“Already committed as sponsors include the Savannah Chamber, Georgia Power, Elkins Constructors and Bonitz of GA. If you are interested, please let me know,” his email concludes, and is signed, “David Simons, Simons Political Group.”

The Reaction of a Georgia Lobbyist to the Ethics Commission’s Case

According to one of the State’s top lobbyists, who asked not to be identified, Simons’ activities is why lobbyists now must wear badges at the State House, a very distinctive badge that makes clear that they are a Registered Lobbyist.

“Dave was up at the State House, wearing a badge that said he was an ‘Aide’ to State Rep. Burke Day which gave him access to the floor, etc. but he was lobbying. He was getting paid like $100 a month as an ‘Aide.’  But, a State Senator confronted him, and said, ‘Why are you wearing that badge? You’re lobbying.’ And, because of that, we now all wear badges.”

They added, “There will be a lot of lobbyists who will be glad to see Dave get smacked. Just like bad lawyers, the lobbyists who follow the rules will be glad.”

Link to Part II, Published September 22, 2017: https://www.savannahbusinessjournal.com/administrator/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=7027

Editor’s Note: An attempt to reach David Simon was unsuccessful. The SBJ will continue to attempt to reach Simons’ legal representation.

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    People in this conversation

    • Guest - Tony Center

      No money was paid to me or for my benefit.
      The group wanting to use public money to build a hotel on Hutchinson Island invited me to lunch at The Pink House.
      Dave Simons put the lunch together.
      I heard their viewpoint, yet eventually voted against their project.

      Like 0 Short URL:
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