CANTON — Controversy already has begun in the Nov. 5 special election to replace Barry Loudermilk (R-Cassville) in the state Senate, with complaints brought forward this week claiming three of the six candidates are not legally qualified to run.
The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office is looking into complaints that candidates Dean Sheridan, Christopher G. Nesmith and Matt Laughridge are not eligible to run for the District 14 seat because of concerns raised by residents that the candidates’ qualifications might violate the state’s Constitution, Cody Whitlock, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, confirmed.
Loudermilk resigned the seat last month to devote more time to his bid for U.S. Congress, clearing the way for the special election.
Dwight Pullen of Canton, Nicole Ebbeskotte of Woodstock, and Bruce Thompson of White have also thrown their names in the hat for the District 14 seat covering large portions of Cherokee and Bartow counties and a small piece of Cobb.
Just a day after qualifying for the race ended Wednesday, constituents had already started trying to thin the field of six candidates.
Canton resident Garrett Jamieson hand-delivered formal complaints to the Secretary of State’s Office on Thursday that allege Sheridan, of Woodstock, and Nesmith, of Adairsville, are not eligible to hold the office because they have unpaid tax bills.
The Constitution of the State of Georgia lays out a list of factors which could disqualify a candidate from holding office, including anyone “who is a defaulter for any federal, state, county, municipal, or school system taxes required of such officeholder or candidate if such person has been finally adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to owe those taxes.”
Jamieson said Thursday this passage makes Sheridan ineligible for the race because he has an outstanding federal tax lien filed in Cobb County Superior Court for unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.
Cobb court records show that the lien was filed in 2010 against Sheridan’s now-closed business, Vend One Consultants for $1,399.09 in unpaid taxes.
Sheridan said Thursday he has been aware of the lien for some time, but he maintains his position that he doesn’t truly owe the money because the bill was for taxes billed after Vend One went out of business.
“They billed me the quarterly filings after the business was closed, for a specific time period I wasn’t there,” he said. “And my tax records prove that.”
He said he planned to go to an IRS office and address the issue within the next 10 days.
“If they can prove me wrong — which they can’t — then of course I’ll pay the (taxes),” Sheridan said. “I’m a hard-working man, and I follow through. If there’s any discrepancy at all about any of that business, I can assure you it will be remedied to the satisfaction of anybody who cares to know.”
Jamieson said he’s been relayed a message from Sheridan that he was going to take care of the debt.
“(But) we’ve asked for proof, and he has produced no proof,” Jamieson said.
Sheridan said Jamieson’s complaint is little more than part of a “malicious” attempt to remove him from the race for political reasons.
“There are several people in this county that don’t like my politics because they have an agenda,” he said. “This is why we cannot get quality human beings to run for public office.”
Jamieson said he hasn’t made up his mind on who to support in the race, though he is strongly against Sheridan.
“As of right now, I haven’t personally endorsed anyone,” he said. “I plan on attending an event for (Pullen) next week just to get some more information on him. I’m also trying to read up some more on Bruce Thompson. I’m not 100 percent on anybody just yet.”
Candidate residency questioned
Bartow candidate Laughridge’s candidacy is being investigated by the Secretary of State’s Office due to a resident’s concerns that he hasn’t lived in District 14 for more than a year. Candidates must live in their post for one year to be eligible for the office, according to the state’s Constitution.
Cherokee community activist Linda Flory said she conducted research on the candidate and turned it over to election officials earlier this week. She also helped Jamieson look into Sheridan and Nesmith, Jamieson said.
Part of the evidence Flory cites in her assertions about Laughridge’s residency is he voted in a different Senate district in 2012.
According to Bartow County voter records, Laughridge voted in District 52 three times in 2012, once in July, once in August and one last time Nov. 6. The address he was registered to vote with was on Reynolds Lane in Kingston, which is in District 52, records show.
Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk said Laughridge changed his address on his voter registration last month to a new District 14 address on Peeples Valley Road in Cartersville.
On Tuesday, Laughridge qualified to run for the District 14 seat and gave the Secretary of State’s Office an address on Captains Walk Drive in Cartersville, which is in District 14.
But Melanie Collier, campaign spokesperson for Laughridge, said Thursday that despite the different addresses on file for Laughridge, he has lived in the district for well over a year. Collier said Laughridge was out of the state and unavailable for comment Thursday.
“I can understand the confusion here,” Collier said. “However, it’s explainable. Matt lives in the district. He has lived in the district the last two years or so.”
Collier said for almost two years Laughridge has lived on a houseboat docked at the address on Captains Walk Drive. The home on Peeples Valley Road is undergoing construction, and Laughridge is staying on the boat in the meantime, Collier said.
As for the Reynolds Lane address the candidate voted with last year, Collier said Laughridge’s parents’ home is there. Collier said Laughridge kept his parent’s address as his voting address even though he was in the houseboat, so he could just make one change of voter address when his home on Peeples Way was ready to move into.
“He had not changed his registration to his new living location,” she said. “Honestly, let’s face it. That happens a lot. He has lived on that boat for two years. He is qualified to run for this seat.”
Flory said if Laughridge says he lived in District 14 but voted in District 52, “he’s admitting to voter fraud.”
“You have to sleep at night where you say your residence is,” she said. “If he did live in the district, now he’s got a new problem. It’s voter fraud.”
Since qualifying began this week, Flory has already announced her support for one of Laughridge’s competitors, Pullen. But she said her support of that candidate doesn’t change or influence her stance on Laughridge.
“It doesn’t change anything,” she said. “I looked into Pullen, too, and I didn’t find anything.”
More tax woes
The lone Democrat in the non-partisan race, Nesmith, also has tax records being looked into by the state, thanks to Jamieson’s complaint that he isn’t qualified due to unpaid property taxes in Bartow County.
According to Bartow tax records, Nesmith owes $1,534.68 in 2012 property taxes for his home on Hopkins Farm Drive in Adairsville.
Jamieson said he had difficulty in tracking down information about Nesmith after hearing he had qualified Wednesday. But while looking into the candidate, Jamieson said the tax bill was found, and Nesmith is not qualified as a result.
Nesmith said Thursday that Jamieson’s claim that he owes taxes is “absolutely true.”
“Yes, I am behind on my property tax,” Nesmith said. “We had hoped to be able to work out a way to get it paid before the next assessment came due and be back on track. But I lost my job and financially, we’ve struggled.”
Whether that means he isn’t a qualified candidate or not, Nesmith said it isn’t his call, as the Secretary of State’s Office will have to make that decision.
“If it turns out that it makes me ineligible, well then so be it,” Nesmith said. “At the same time, barring that and my ability to address it, I’ll just proceed forward.”
Voters will go to the polls Nov. 5, with early voting set to begin Oct. 14.
Election officials say in case of a runoff election, that would be scheduled for Dec. 3.