After the three-hour hearing in downtown Atlanta, Deputy Chief Judge Michael Malihi of the Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings, said he would decide in the next few days whether or not Matt Laughridge or Dean Sheridan were legally eligible to go after the seat being vacated by Barry Loudermilk (R-Cassville).
The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office asked office to hold the hearing and make a recommendation in response to complaints filed by Canton resident Garrett Jamieson, who said neither of the candidates met the requirements to seek the office laid out by Georgia’s Constitution.
Jamieson filed a complaint in September saying Laughridge wasn’t legally eligible because he had not lived in District 14 for a full year, and Sheridan wasn’t because he had an active tax lien placed against him by the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid business taxes.
Both Laughridge and Sheridan appeared before the judge Thursday in Atlanta and defended their candidacies.
Another candidate, Christopher G. Nesmith, of Adairsville, also came to the hearing to defend himself against a complaint filed by Jamieson accusing that he had unpaid taxes as well.
But Nesmith was cleared when Jamieson said he wanted to drop his complaint, because the candidate had paid off the tax bill, which was for 2012 property taxes on his home in Adairsville.
Laughridge, a Bartow County candidate, and his attorney Stefan Passantino strongly denied Jamieson’s allegations before the judge Thursday.
Laughridge said he has been living in the District for more than a year at an address on Captains Walk Drive in Cartersville, which is in District 14.
That address is a houseboat on Lake Allatoona, where Laughridge said he has lived since December 2011 while looking for a more permanent place.
According to Passantino, bills charged to Laughridge for electricity and septic services at the houseboat prove he has lived there for more than a year.
But Jamieson’s attorney, LaDawn Jones, argued that other documents produced by her client show the candidate has conflicting addresses on file. Jones is also a Democratic state representative from Atlanta.
“I was able to look into his address history, tax filings,” Jamieson said when questioned by Jones. “There are address discrepancies on tax documents.”
Jamieson said those discrepancies arise from the address previously listed on Laughridge’s driver’s license, as well as the fact that the houseboat is registered with Bartow County to an address not in District 14.
Laughridge’s license previously listed an address in Kingston, which sits in state Senate District 52. The same address, which is Laughridge’s parents’ home, was also the one used to register the house boat with Bartow County, according to Jamieson.
Jamieson also said Laughridge was arrested in February by the Georgia State Patrol, and at that time the address on his license was in Kingston.
He was charged with DUI and two traffic violations, police records show.
The police officer who arrested Laughridge testified Thursday, but said he had no intimate knowledge of where the 25-year-old candidate lived in February, just that his license listed his address at the time of the arrest.
Laughridge said after the hearing Thursday he was arrested fter he crashed his car while trying to miss a deer on his way to the boat.
“I wasn’t drunk,” Laughridge said, adding he is fighting the charges and has no court date yet.
For Jamieson, the recent revelation that Laughridge had been living on a house boat “raised some red flags.”
Living full time on a houseboat on Lake Allatoona, Jamieson testified, is not legal, because the land is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Laughridge was also called to testify and said he recently found out living on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property wasn’t allowed.
He said he then moved off the boat when the “commodore” of his yacht club told him about two weeks ago the couldn’t live there full time.
Laughridge said he now lives in an apartment in Cartersville, which is also in District 14.
Despite Laughridge’s position he has lived on the boat for more than a year, his opponents say his voting record in Bartow County shows his legal residency was not in District 14.
Cherokee County activist Linda Flory testified Thursday on research she had done on the candidate’s voting history, noting that he voted in a different state Senate district in 2012. Bartow elections officials have confirmed Laughridge voted in District 52 three times in 2012, only changing his address to one in District 14 in August.
Jones asked Laughridge why he hadn’t changed his address to vote until August.
Laughridge said although changing the address wasn’t something he thought of often, he hadn’t done it because he planned to move into a home on Peeples Valley Road in Cartersville, which is also in District 14. The candidate said he finalized a purchase of property there in December after considering it for several years, but the home had to be torn down because of its condition and he is waiting to move in.
Passantino said the allegations Laughridge’s residency was in violation of Army Corps of Engineers regulations, or what addresses he claimed on his driver’s license or voter registration, were all irrelevant.
The “sole issue” before the judge, Passantino said, was where Laughridge physically lived for the last year.
“Did Mr. Laughridge reside as a matter of law within the District for the past year?,” Passantino asked. “There is no question that he has resided within the district for more than a year. He was living within the district, continues to live within the district and intends in the future to live within the district.”
Considering the different addresses on file for the candidate, Jones asked Laughridge why he chose to run for District 14 in the state Senate, as opposed to any other district.
“We seeked general counsel beforehand to find out what district to run in, and, based on that advice, it was 14,” Laughridge answered. “We just wanted to make sure—because I do have different addresses—which one was the appropriate one.”
Sheridan came to the hearing Thursday without a lawyer and defended himself against what he called Jamieson’s malicious accusations.
The Acworth candidate told the judge he doesn’t truly owe the taxes Jamieson cited because they were charged for a business he owned after it had already closed down.
“It happens all the time when people close a business,” Sheridan said. “A lot of people (with closed businesses) have told me that when they’ve done their automatic filing, the bills kept coming whether they’re valid bills or not, like a magazine subscription.”
Sheridan said he considered paying off the taxes to satisfy Jamieson.
“I thought if I went ahead there and paid it anyway, even though I don’t owe it, that would please (Jamieson),” he said.
Then he decided against that.
“The fact of the matter is there’s no pleasing this man,” Sheridan said.
Now, Sheridan said he plans on appealing the tax lien.
He said he hasn’t been able to do that, though, because of the conflicts under way in Washington, D.C.
“They’re shut down and closed because of the government shutdown,” he said. “I couldn’t go down there and pay it if I wanted to.”
Sheridan added he hadn’t been finally adjudicated to pay the taxes, which according to Georgia law, would be required to disqualify him.