A political newcomer plans to continue her run to be Dawson County's next tax commissioner despite the threat of a lawsuit from her opponent's daughter over statements in her campaign literature.
"It was just an intimidation tactic. It's a ploy to try to intimidate and threaten me and it's not going to work," said Karin McKee, who is challenging incumbent Linda Townley for the post.
"I'm going to proceed as planned to get my message across."
On Saturday, McKee received a cease-and-desist letter from local attorney Chris Conowal on behalf of Shelly Townley Martin, daughter of the incumbent tax commissioner.
The letter threatens litigation, claiming McKee libeled, slandered and caused torturous interference with Martin's business relations when she distributed campaign literature through the mail, at a public outing July 3 and in campaign advertising.
While McKee's campaign pamphlet does not specifically name Martin, it does say Townley as tax commissioner paid "her own daughter," a private attorney, more than $88,000 in legal fees in the last two years.
She did so, the pamphlet states, "without any type of competitive bidding process, costing the taxpayers of our county thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses" by charging "almost 100 percent more than the company utilized by most neighboring tax commission offices."
Conowal's letter challenges McKee's statements and demands an immediate retraction, as well as an apology to Martin, a local attorney.
"Ms. McKee in that letter was given a deadline and Ms. Martin and I both firmly believe Ms. McKee deserves an opportunity to comply with the cease-and-desist letter," Conowal said. "The cease-and-desist letter gives a very reasonable manner in which she can be compliant in that.
"In a nutshell, if Ms. McKee will fully retract each of the defamatory statements that she made towards Shelly Townley Martin, make an apology, then everything will be OK."
McKee, who has held numerous roles in accounting and administration before retiring from the nursing home industry and managing elderly housing, said she stands by her claims.
"Everything I have said is factual based on information I received through the Georgia Open Records Act from the tax commissioner's office," McKee said. "I stand by my facts. And it's sad that her daughter felt she had to insert herself in the campaign."
In his response to Conowal's letter, McKee's attorney Larry C. Oldham said his client has no intentions of printing any retractions.
"Having said nothing that can reasonably be argued to impugn Ms. Martin's character or reputation, Ms. McKee has nothing to apologize to Ms. Martin for and accordingly declines to do so," he wrote, adding McKee intends to defend her findings and would file any appropriate counterclaims should the suit progress.
"Rather than rattling sabers and spending attorney time sparring with each other, it would appear the best approach would be to let the political process decide this race rather than unnecessarily involving the judiciary unit," he added.
Monday afternoon, Townley, who is nearing the end of her second term, weighed in on the dispute, calling the claims both false and surprising.
"It upsets me to no end because I just feel like, if you have a question, ask me. I can show you that there's no problem," she said. "The only thing we own is our good name, and the only person that should be able to destroy that is myself.
"I've worked hard all my life to be able to feel like what I have done was an accomplishment and now all of that has been questioned and it's just very upsetting."
According to Townley, the fees in question are collection fees for title research, rather than legal fees, because they are recouped when property owners with delinquent taxes pay their bills.
"And they were not competitive bid, because you don't have to do that, because the person that has the delinquent taxes pays those fees," Townley said. "The county does not pay it."
McKee said the issue with Townley entering into a contract with her daughter to perform the collection services without a bid process is her biggest concern.
According to County Attorney Joey Homans, however, the position of tax commissioner is a constitutional officer and not bound by the county's anti-nepotism rules, though most in the county follow the policy that keeps family members from working in the same department.
Homans added, the policy does not apply in this case because Martin is not an employee.
Townley said there is no violation since someone else in her office is responsible for issuing the checks for the services.
"I don't write the checks. They go through our system," she said.
Townley said she takes offense to McKee's statement that "Dawson County deserves better than unethical self-dealing between the tax commissioner and her family," as printed on the campaign pamphlet.
"Yes, she is my daughter. But she is a local business, she is a local attorney, not charging attorney fees, but charging comparable to what I had paid before," Townley said.
Townley currently uses two companies for tax collections, Martin's firm and Government Tax Services, which she said is more efficient than having an employee perform the tax research.
"Everybody uses somebody to do title searches in their county," she said.
Townley's office pays Martin's firm $55 to send the first letter to delinquent taxpayers, the same amount paid to Government Tax Services.
For research and the second letter, Martin is paid $140, while Government Tax Services receives $110.
McKee said the inconsistencies involve additional amounts in Martin's contract, including $95 for each sheriff tax deed, an estimated $31.22 reviewing files for excess proceeds and $31.25 for man hours incurred by the Dawson County Marshal's office.
According to McKee, those fees are included in the Government Tax Services contract.
McKee contends the total listed for Martin's services is $352.47 per parcel, compared to $165 per parcel for Government Tax Services.
The tax commissioner's office is audited annually and received a clean bill of health on its last report, Townley said.
The election for tax commissioner will be decided with the general primary on July 31 since both candidates are running as Republicans and there is no Democrat in the race.