COVINGTON -- Superior Court Clerk Linda Hays said records related to passport fees retained by her office are confidential and/or have been destroyed.
A letter delivered to the Citizen on Friday from Hays states, in part: "As a certified passport agent, I retain copies of passport transmittal forms for each passport I process. As provided by the Passport Agent Resource Guide provided by the Passport Services Office, these records are destroyed after 24 months. Since these records contain confidential information on passport applicants, the confidentiality of these records is protected under the Privacy Act of 1974 ... "
Hays supplied one form, a report submitted to the U.S. Department of State Passport Services Passport Application Acceptance Program, which states that the number of passport applications accepted from Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011, was 1,560. Calculated at a $25 processing fee per passport, that would amount to $39,000 collected in that 12-month period.
The letter was in response to an Open Records request submitted by the Citizen on April 9 requesting that Hays provide documentation showing the number of passports processed by her office during the last five years and the amount of fees associated with the processing of those passports.
Hays stated that she would respond to the Citizen's April 9 Open Records request by April 20. The Citizen ran a story on April 29 stating that Hays had not complied with the Open Records request.
Hays stated that she faxed the information on April 17. When reached by phone on Friday, Hays agreed to a sit-down interview with the Citizen that afternoon. She later delayed the interview and then canceled it, but had the letter, dated April 17, hand-delivered to the Citizen office.
The Citizen has also asked Hays to provide documentation showing how passport fees have been spent.
In a letter sent to the Citizen on April 12, Hays cites a section of Georgia law defining public records as those prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency, or items received or maintained by a private person or entity on behalf of a public office or agency.
"My personal records regarding the expenditure of passport processing fees ... are neither prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of Newton County nor are they maintained by me on behalf of Newton County," Hays stated.
State law allows clerks of courts to keep the $25 administrative passport fees as personal compensation for doing federal work.
The Citizen filed an Open Records request with Newton County requesting Newton County disclose any records in the county's possession related to passport processing fees collected by the Superior Court Clerk's Office for the past five years.
The resulting report shows passport fees collected from December 2007 through December 2008. The reporting then becomes more sporadic, with reporting for only the months of January, April and May 2009 and January 2010. Asked to provide clarity on why there were gaps of time in the report, County Manager John Middleton stated, "We have fully complied with the Newton Citizen's open record request and provided reports and information as requested. If we did not handle the receipting or disbursement of passport fees it would not be reflected in our records."
At least a total of $55,025 has been collected in passport fees during the past five years, based on the documentation provided by the county.