‘We’ve done nothing illegal’ | Bill to ban court clerks from pocketing passport fees draws fire

An Atlanta News First Investigates report uncovered a law allowing clerks to legally pocket thousands of tax dollars.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick (R-Marietta), would also require clerks to disclose the total amount of processing fees they receive on a qua
Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 3:03 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 7, 2023 at 8:28 AM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Lawmakers heard from several court clerks Monday who oppose legislation that would prohibit them from personally pocketing fees they collect from processing passports.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick (R-Marietta), would also require clerks to disclose the total amount of processing fees they receive on a quarterly basis. The legislation comes after an Atlanta News First Investigates report that exposed a controversial law that allows superior court clerks to keep thousands of dollars in passport processing fees.

Persons applying for passports in Georgia pay two fees: an application of $130 that goes to the federal government, and a processing fee of $35, which goes directly to the court clerk to do with it what they want.

“This has been a longstanding practice,” said Tiana Garner, Gwinnett’s superior court clerk. “We’re not hiding this. We’ve done nothing illegal. It’s state law.”

RELATED: Superior court clerks legally pocketing thousands in passport processing fees

In Cobb and Fulton counties, the clerks have been keeping 100% of every $35 fee. Cobb Superior Court clerk Connie Taylor raked in more than $220,000 last year, while Fulton County clerk Cathelene “Tina” Robinson, pocketed $360,000.

“It’s a huge service we’re providing,” said Debra Deberry, DeKalb’s superior court clerk. “It’s a necessary service. It’s additional work. It’s not part of our constitutional duty.”

Dana Chastain, Fannin County’s superior court clerk, told lawmakers in smaller counties such as hers, “post offices don’t do passports so the burden is on the clerk.

“Each passport you do, I try to do personally, unless I’m in court,” Chastain said. “It takes about 20 to 30 minutes. We go through rigorous training every year. We are the first line of defense for fraud, abduction, human trafficking.”

Watch Monday’s hearing below:

“The media story that you all did has really raised awareness of this and has now generated enough attention that there’s legislation that I think has a good chance to pass,” Kirkpatrick, whose 32nd district includes portions of Cobb and Cherokee counties, said.

“They cannot take the money home when they’re using county resources on top of their salary. The money needs to go to the county and/or the clerks’ office because they are a county office.”

RELATED: Court clerks are legally raking in the cash. But that may soon change

If passed, the legislation will ban superior court clerks and probate judges from keeping passport processing fees as “personal compensation.” It will require the money go to the county general fund and a portion go to the clerk’s office. The bill also would require clerks to disclose the total amount of processing fees they receive on a quarterly basis.

Kirkpatrick’s legislation is already receiving bipartisan support. “This is commonsense, good-government legislation,” said state Sen. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs). “Many people would be shocked to learn that clerks can personally pocket these fees, which should be used to help our overburdened courts instead of enriching individual officials.”

Read Kirkpatrick’s legislation here

After Monday’s hearing, Robinson told Atlanta News First Investigates she had no comment on the issue. Robinson also was asked if taxpayers would be surprised she is doubling her salary by keeping passport processing fees. She offered no response.

Garner told Atlanta News First Investigates, “We’re going to let the legislative process play out and we’re grateful for the opportunity to be heard today.”

The bill’s future is uncertain but Kirkpatrick said she is going to speak with state Sen. Marty Harbin (R-Greensboro), who chairs the Senate’s government oversight committee, and she hopes to move her legislation forward.

Click here to read previous statements they and other metro Atlanta clerks sent about this issue.