Superior court clerks legally pocketing thousands in passport processing fees

In 2021, Cobb’s superior court clerk raked in more than $220K, while Fulton’s pocketed $360K in passport processing fees, on top of their salaries.
Published: Dec. 19, 2022 at 11:08 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 20, 2022 at 9:13 AM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - A controversial law allowing superior court clerks to personally pocket money when processing passports could draw new scrutiny in next year’s General Assembly.

“Concerned would be a mild word to use,” state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick (R-Marietta) said. “It just doesn’t seem fair to use county resources for your own personal profit,” which is why she plans to introduce legislation this coming session.

In Georgia, processing passports is an easy way for some elected superior court clerks to put thousands of dollars in fees into their own personal bank accounts.

An Atlanta News First Investigation uncovered in 2021 alone, Cobb Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor raked in more than $220,000, while Fulton Superior Court Clerk Cathelene “Tina” Robinson pocketed more than $360,000 in passport processing fees. Those fees are in addition to their yearly salaries.

Cobb Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor personally took home more than $425,000 from processing...
Cobb Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor personally took home more than $425,000 from processing passports.(WANF)

All of this is completely legal but it comes as a big surprise to taxpayers we talked with inside Cobb County’s passport office.

“Wow, I’m in the wrong business. That’s a lot of money,” Anthony Vidal said.

“It seems a little shady,” Michael Singer added. “It just seems like it shouldn’t work that way.”

Superior court clerks tell Atlanta News First Investigates it’s “helpful” and “important” for them to offer passport services to residents, considering the limited capacity of federal passport agencies at post offices.

Passport processing fees

Those applying for passports in Georgia are required to pay two fees. The application fee of $130 goes to the federal government.

The processing fee is $35; that goes directly to the superior court clerk’s office, where they can do whatever they want with it.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong with that,” said Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director for Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).

According to a 2017 ACCG survey, 87of Georgia’s 159 counties were currently processing passport applications. Of those, 54 court clerks or probate judges were keeping some or all of the passport processing fees as personal compensation.

“It should be provided back to the county general fund because the county or county taxpayers pay for the expenses of processing, the staff time, equipment, overhead etc. to process these fees,” Edwards said.

By the numbers

Atlanta News First Investigates obtained records from five superior court clerks offices.

In Cherokee County, $25 of every $35 passport fee is sent to the county’s general fund. The remaining $10 goes to a support fund the clerk uses for items like office supplies.

In DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, $10 of every $35 passport fee goes to the county’s general fund. The other $25 go into superior court clerks’ pocket.

DeKalb Superior Court Clerk Debra DeBerry pocketed more than $200,000 in 2021.

Gwinnett just began processing passports, nine months ago. Since then, Gwinnett County Superior Court Clerk Tiana Garner made close to $100,000.

In Cobb and Fulton counties, superior court clerks keep 100% of every $35 passport fee. In 2021 alone, Cobb Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor raked in more than $220,000, while Fulton Superior Court Clerk Cathelene “Tina” Robinson pocketed more than $360,000 in passport processing fees.

GBI investigation

As Atlanta News First Investigates began its research, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) began investigating Taylor for mishandling passport shipping fees.

Federal law allows government officials to keep passport processing fees as long as state law designates it. Georgia law does just that.

However, Taylor is accused of collecting $86,000 in passport shipping fees, which clerks are not allowed to keep, according to state law.

“A Cobb County Superior Court Judge asked the GBI to investigate criminal allegations made against the Cobb County Clerk of Superior Courts,” the agency said in a statement. “The GBI is investigating.”

Sen. Kirkpatrick, whose district 32 includes portions of Cobb and Cherokee counties, said the lack of transparency coupled with inconsistency among counties is troubling.

“My bill is going to require disclosure of how the money is spent and there is going to be some type of a formula that does not include personal income,” Kirkpatrick said.

In Georgia, superior court clerks are allowed to personally keep a portion of passport...
In Georgia, superior court clerks are allowed to personally keep a portion of passport processing fees.(WANF)

Superior court clerks respond

Atlanta News First Investigates requested on-camera interviews with Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cherokee county superior court clerks. All of those requests were denied but four of the five provided statements.

In 2021, I received a total of $362,635 in U.S. passport execution fees as supplemental compensation, on which I paid taxes like all other income. Federal law requires officials who accept passport applications to collect fees prescribed by the Department of State, including execution fees when an applicant must apply in person and swear an oath before a duly authorized officer. Acceptance offices may also charge other fees for services rendered, such as passport photo fees and mailing fees.

“Federal law provides that local officials who act as acceptance officers may retain the execution fees. For years, Georgia law has provided that the fees so collected and retained are compensation to The Clerk of Superior Court. Clerks typically receive the execution fees as a supplement, while photo and mailing fees are remitted to the county general fund to cover expenses.

“Considering the limited capacity of federal Passport Agencies and Post Offices to accept passport applications, I decided to begin having the Clerk of Superior Court offers passport execution services to the public. Since taking on the additional duties of executing passport applications, I have received all of the execution fees, while all of the mail fees have been paid over to the county (photo services are not offered). As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and more Americans embrace travel abroad, I consider it helpful and important to offer this service, which enhances citizens’ access to passport processing and residents of this county find useful.”

-- Fulton’s Superior Court Clerk Cathelene “Tina” Robinson

“Federal law requires officials who accept passport applications to collect fees prescribed by the Department of State, including execution fees when an applicant must apply in person and swear an oath before a duly authorized officer. Acceptance offices may also charge other fees for services rendered, such as passport photo fees and mailing fees. Federal law provides that local officials who act as acceptance officers may retain the execution fees.

“For years, Georgia law has provided that the fees so collected and retained are compensation to the clerk of superior court. Clerks typically receive the execution fees as a supplement, while photo and mailing fees are remitted to the county general fund to cover expenses.

“Considering the limited capacity of federal Passport Agencies and Post Offices to accept passport applications, I decided to begin having the Clerk of Superior Court offer passport execution services to the public. Since taking on the additional duties of executing passport applications, I have chosen to split the $35 execution fee with the county. The entirety of the photo and express mail fees are paid over to the county. As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and more Americans embrace travel abroad, I consider it helpful and important to offer this service, which enhances citizens’ access to passport processing and residents of this county find useful.”

-- Gwinnett Superior Court Clerk Tiana Garner

“Federal law requires officials who accept passport applications to collect fees prescribed by the Department of State, including execution fees when an applicant must apply in person and swear an oath before a duly authorized officer. Acceptance offices may also charge other fees for services rendered, such as passport photo fees and mailing fees.

“Federal law provides that local officials who act as acceptance officers may retain the execution fees. For years, Georgia law has provided that the fees so collected and retained are compensation to the clerk of superior court. Clerks typically receive the execution fees as a supplement, while photo and mailing fees are remitted to the county general fund to cover expenses.

“Considering the limited capacity of federal Passport Agencies and Post Offices to accept passport applications, I decided to continue my predecessor’s practice of having the Clerk of Superior Court offer passport execution services to the public. Since taking office, I have split the $35 execution fee with the County, as well as paying the County the photo and express mail fees. As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and more Americans embrace travel abroad, I consider it helpful and important to offer this service, which enhances citizens’ access to passport processing and residents of this county find useful.”

-- DeKalb Superior Court Clerk Debra DeBerry

“I didn’t apply to the Federal Passport Agency to be a Passport Acceptance Agent. My County was already accepting passports prior to me taking office. I continued to accept them. It is a service to the citizens. The local Post Office requires an appointment, and it takes weeks to get one.

“I send $25.00 directly to the County Governing Authority at the end of each month.

“I keep $10.00 and put it into a Clerk of Court Support Fund. I use it for things I would not take out of my regular budget. Since it is personal compensation, I can spend it as I feel appropriate (gift cards, lunch for staff etc.). I set it up this way shortly after taking office and discussing it with my county manager. I did not feel comfortable keeping the full execution fee as personal compensation. Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should.”

-- Cherokee Superior Court Clerk Patty Baker

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