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Down and Dirty in Georgia

Both candidates for the Democratic slot on the gubernatorial ballot overplay their hands.

July 7, 2006

Modified: July 7, 2006

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Summary

 

The latest attack ads by Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidates Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor certainly contain some facts, but veer off into insinuation and conjecture.

Cox has little to back up her charge that opponent Mark Taylor’s “family interests” got "sweetheart deals" on state leases of their buildings. Taylor lashes back but goes too far, casting Cox’s appearances in public service announcements about investor fraud as being far more scandalous than they were. He may have caught her in what he says is a lie, but her campaign says he’s taking a quote out of context.

Analysis

 

A 30-second Cox ad that started airing statewide June 28 contains a new allegation, with the announcer saying Taylor's family interests got sweetheart deals leasing property to the state to the tune of $4 million.” Six lease numbers and one lease name appear briefly on the screen. But the Cox campaign’s supporting evidence for the allegation of “sweetheart deals” appears flimsy, except possibly in one case.

 Cathy Cox Ad: "Deceit"

Announcer: The big guy's at it again. Mark Taylor knows Cathy Cox repeatedly voted to crack down on sexual predators, but Mark Taylor's record? Free prison labor on a project with his family trucking business costing hard working Georgians their jobs, and now it turns out Taylor's family interests got sweetheart deals leasing property to the state to the tune of $4 million of our tax dollars.

On screen: shows lease numbers

Announcer: Mark Taylor, the big guy who just keeps looking out for other big guys.

"Sweetheart Deals?"

The Cox campaign cites the fact that companies connected to Mark’s father, Fred, and sometimes to Mark himself, made far more money leasing properties to the state after he was elected state senator and then Lt. Governor than before he took office. From 1975-1987, when Mark was elected to the senate, the rental income from the state was $148,778, the campaign says, whereas from 1987-2003 it was $3,919,145. Okay, but. First off, the latter period is several years longer. Second, factor in 30 years of inflation and the fact that rent for office space has increased nationwide. Third, even if the numbers seem out of whack, they’re hardly proof of sweetheart deals.

Cox’s best specific example concerns a state lease of Fred Taylor property in Albany , GA , that, according to the Cox campaign, has earned the company $272,460. In a letter dated Nov. 27, 1998, an agent for Fred Taylor asked that the state keep leasing the building for another three years even though a new building was being constructed to house the Department of Human Resources agency that occupied the space. The extra time would allow Fred Taylor to amortize the cost of improvements to the building, the letter said. A handwritten notation at the bottom, apparently penned by the state official who received the letter as he forwarded it to another state official, says, “Joe – Notice the name of the company – this is Mark’s father!”

A letter from Fred Taylor himself to two state officials on Oct. 27, 2000 indicates that the agency indeed stayed in his building for the requested time, and that efforts had been made to keep the agency there even longer. What’s unclear, of course, is why. While officials who were in charge of leasing office space for state agencies were clearly aware that Fred Taylor was the father of Mark Taylor, who had just been elected lieutenant governor after serving more than a decade as the Albany area’s state senator, the impact of that knowledge on the leasing decision isn’t spelled out. There's no evidence here that Mark Taylor did anything to influence the decision. There’s also no evidence that the other six leases involved any “sweetheart deals.”

Other Deals?

The Cox ad might have been on firmer ground had it accused Taylor of favorable contracts other than real estate. In 1994, when he was a state senator, Taylor said he'd be happy to aid his father’s business interests. “If there’s something that I can do to assist any of the companies that my father owns, then I’m willing to do so,” he said. At the time, he had visited officials in 25 counties to try to persuade them to do business with a large trash-hauling company that his father’s firm, which operated the transfer station where the trash was taken, was trying to help, according to an Associated Press story at the time. And there’s no doubt that Taylor ’s own finances, his father’s, and those of his father’s companies have been intertwined for years. Taylor currently draws a $100,000-a-year salary from Fred Taylor Co. for what he himself says is no more than a few hours’ work each month.

The rest of the ad deals with old battles between Cox and Taylor. Her ad says "Taylor knows Cathy Cox repeatedly voted to crack down on sexual predators." That refers to an accusation by Taylor that Cox voted against a child-predator bill that became law. In fact, she voted for another version of the bill, and for other measures. Cox repeats a charge that he arranged for free prison labor to be used on a project that benefited one of his father’s companies, which we’ve addressed  previously and described as exaggerated.

Taylor's Own Attack

Taylor ’s ad, also a 30-second statewide buy that began June 27, says Cox spent $4 million “from a public trust on TV ads promoting her campaign.” Was Cox using taxpayer funds to run “Vote Cathy Cox” ads? No. She did spend about $4 million from something called the Investor Protection Trust, which was funded with settlement money from a lawsuit against 10 giant national investment firms, on ads in 2004 and 2005 warning the public of investment scams, which is exactly what the money was supposed to be used for. The Secretary of State is also Commissioner of Securities in Georgia .  

 Taylor Ad: "Once"

Announcer: Cathy Cox says she's looking out for us, but Cathy Cox spent $4 million from a public trust on TV ads promoting her campaign. The Securities and Exchange Commission sued citing her misuse and seized control of the funds. Cathy Cox says the ads weren't self-promotion.

Clip of Cox: Even in all the ads where I appeared, I never once said my name.

Clip of Cox: Hello, I'm Secretary of State Cathy Cox.

Announcer: Lying and misusing public money is not looking out for us.

The ad’s next allegation, that the Securities and Exchange Commission “sued citing her for misuse and seized control of the funds,” is exceedingly misleading. The only SEC lawsuit involved was its original one against

the investment firms, which led to the settlement that allowed Cox to run the ads. The agency didn’t “seize control” of the funds. But it did ask the court, in 2005, to dissolve the multi-state Investor Protection Trust because of “a number of questions about the IPT’s operation and use of funds”. The SEC cited news articles including one remarking on the fact that Cox, who planned to run for governor, was getting herself noticed with the ads.

Then there’s the issue of whether Cox lied when she said in a local TV interview – a clip of which is shown in Taylor ’s ad – “Even in all the ads where I appeared, I never once said my name.” The Taylor ad cuts to clips of Cox, from her IPT-funded ads, saying “Hello, I’m Secretary of State Cathy Cox.” Taylor says it's clear-cut mendacity. Cox’s campaign says she was talking about the seven statewide investor education ads produced by her office, which has jurisdiction over securities. She appeared in four of them, but didn’t say her name, according to her campaign. A campaign spokesman admits that she did say her name in another set of ads, which ran locally and encouraged people to attend investment education seminars her office was running.

Cox didn't make that distinction in the interview, which appeared June 13 on WAGA-TV in Atlanta , according to a transcript. We can't say if Cox intended to mislead, or just made a misstatement.

Cox had predicted a "three-week street fight" leading up to the July 18 primary. That statement we now judge to be accurate.

- by Viveca Novak

Sources

"Trash company's presence in Southwest Georgia aided by senator" The Associated Press as published in The Albany Herald 28 June 1994.

Tom Baxter, Jim Galloway, "Cox raises profile at no cost to her or taxpayers" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 23 September 2004.

Jerry Redmon, "Taylor a 'big guy' who became a 'tough guy'" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 25 June 2006.

Shannon McCaffrey, "Democratic race turns into 'three week street fight'" The Associated Press 27 June 2006.