The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Bill would stop clerks, judges from pocketing passport applicatio­n fees

Cobb County clerk took more than $425K over two-year period.

- By Taylor Croft

State lawmakers introduced a proposal that would ban county superior court clerks and probate judges from pocketing passport applicatio­n fees as personal income.

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatric­k, R-marietta, introduced a bill to end the controvers­ial practice, three months after The Atlanta Journal-constituti­on reported that Cobb County Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor pocketed more than $425,000 in passport fees in 2021 and 2022.

If approved, the bill would require that the fees be split between the county’s general fund and the clerk’s office, to offset expenses. Counties would have the option to adjust the split through an agreement.

The bill has to be approved by both chambers before becoming law. So far, it appears to have broad support.

Clerks are elected constituti­onal officers who oversee record-keeping for the superior court, including real estate records. Superior court clerks who process passport applicatio­ns are allowed under federal law to take the $35 fee as personal income, along with their salaries, if state law also allows it. Georgia law currently does.

Some opt to share the funds with the county government while others don’t. The AJC reported last year that Taylor kept all of the passport fees for herself, on top of her $170,000 annual salary. The fees Taylor kept included expedited shipping fees.

Taylor’s office is now under investigat­ion by the Georgia Bureau of Investigat­ion after a clerk’s office employee-turned-whistleblo­wer said Taylor ordered her to delete records related to the fees instead of handing them over to the AJC, which requested them under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Kirkpatric­k, who lives in Cobb County, said the recent news coverage brought the issue to light. But the issue is not limited to Cobb. She cited Gwinnett, Dekalb and Fulton counties, where the court clerks also have made thousands in additional compensati­on.

“If counties need to supplement the clerks’ income, there are other ways to do it,” Kirkpatric­k told the committee. “Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.”

Todd Edwards is the deputy director of government­al affairs for the Associatio­n of County Commission­ers of Georgia’s legislativ­e advocacy team. He partnered with Kirkpatric­k to draft the bill, which also calls for more transparen­cy through disclosure reports.

He said the bill is not intended to stop clerks from performing the service altogether, but that the personal compensati­on component should be addressed.

“This is a public service. It’s valuable to the public. We just would hope that y’all would address it somehow on how this money is being kept as compensati­on,” Edwards said.

 ?? ?? Sen. Kay Kirkpatric­k, R-marietta, introduced the bill regarding passport fees.
Sen. Kay Kirkpatric­k, R-marietta, introduced the bill regarding passport fees.

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