Georgia ethics panel to begin auditing candidates in governor’s race

After years of mainly investigating issues raised by Georgians, the state’s ethics watchdog agency plans to aggressively audit campaign filings from all the major statewide races coming up.

Stefan Ritter, the executive secretary of the ethics commission, said that while some details still have to be worked out, the agency will be auditing the campaigns for governor, attorney general and other major contests on the ballot in 2018. In addition, he said it may audit other races — some after elections this year — such as the filings in the Atlanta mayor’s race.

Ritter said such scrutiny is part of the agency’s responsibility.

“We will audit all the campaigns uniformly,” he told the commission members. “Those are the ones that are in the public eye and have a significant amount of money.”

Ritter’s decision comes after at least three major candidates faced campaign-related complaints the last time Georgia had an open governor’s race, in 2010. One of those cases is still tied up in court, and many of the questions about the candidate weren’t raised until an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation five years after the election. By then, the statute of limitations on some of the accusations had run out.

A Georgia News Lab/AJC investigation published in May found problems with the campaign filings of many statewide candidates in the 2006 and 2010 elections.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s second term ends in January 2019, and an expensive governor’s race is already underway for both the Republican and Democratic nominations to replace him. In addition, candidates for lieutenant governor are expected to raise millions, and the attorney general, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, school superintendent, agriculture and labor commissioners, and seats on the utility regulating Public Service Commission are up for grabs.

In the 2010 governor’s race, Deal, Karen Handel, now Georgia’s 6th District congresswoman, and John Oxendine were among those facing ethics complaints.

The commission cleared Deal of major charges and asked him to pay $3,350 in fees for technical defects in his campaign reports, but his case also brought a lawsuit claiming an ethics commission director was forced from her job for investigating the governor’s campaignA series of lawsuits, resignations and infighting led the commission to do little work on complaints, producing a massive backlog of cases that Ritter has largely whittled down since taking over.

Handel was ordered to pay a $75 fine for filing a campaign finance report late during her failed bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010. Another complaint against her was dismissed, while in two others she and the commission’s staff were ordered to make sure proper records were filed.

Meanwhile, Oxendine, a former state insurance commissioner and onetime front-runner in the 2010 race, is still fighting ethics charges that stem from a 2009 complaint, which was expanded dramatically after a 2015 AJC report.

Following an earlier AJC investigation, a complaint was filed accusing two insurance companies of funneling $120,000 in illegal contributions to his campaign.

An ethics complaint against the insurers accused of giving the money to Oxendine was dismissed in 2014 because the ethics commission’s staff had made so little progress on it. But the commission didn’t dismiss charges against Oxendine, the recipient of the donations.

The case remained largely dormant until the AJC reported in 2015 that Oxendine failed to return more than $500,000 worth of leftover contributions from his gubernatorial bid and spent money raised for Republican runoff and general election campaigns that he never ran because he lost in the GOP primary.

Oxendine amended his reports in October 2015 to show more than $700,000 left over, including $237,000 in loans to his law firm.

Following the 2015 AJC report, ethics commission staffers filed an amended complaint, accusing him of improperly spending more than $208,000 raised for the runoff and general elections and accepting more than the legal limit in contributions from 19 donors.

The commission dismissed many of the charges after Oxendine’s lawyer, Douglas Chalmers, successfully argued that the statute of limitations had run out on charges involving the 2010 campaign.

While Oxendine is fighting the leftover charges in court, the commission staff filed a new complaint this summer alleging that he illegally benefited personally from the loans to his own law firm. Under state law, candidates can’t use campaign money for their personal financial benefit.

The commission may have been able to move forward with at least some of the complaints against Oxendine that were dismissed in 2015 had the agency found the issues sooner.

Ritter said random audits of politicians are generally fruitless.

Rick Thompson, a former ethics commission executive secretary, said his office used to audit about 10 percent of filings. Thompson, who made several ethics cases from audits, said his office didn’t give the kind of specific audit scrutiny to major races that Ritter is planning.

After Thompson left, the commission’s budget was cut deeply and the agency didn’t have the personnel to do a lot beyond collecting filings and working on outside complaints. Deal and state lawmakers have boosted the agency’s budget since then.

Ritter told commission members the agency’s vigilance needs to go beyond state races to local government posts.

“It is my view we have a significant problem at the municipal level with the misuse of (campaign) funds,” he said.

He cited the case of Snellville Mayor Tom Witts, who faces a 66-count indictment.

The indictment accuses him of numerous crimes, including tax evasion; lying on official documents about owing taxes when he ran for both the City Council and for mayor; improperly allowing his business to perform work for the city; and using campaign funds for personal expenses such as cruises and airline tickets.

Sixty-five of the charges are felonies. The only misdemeanor charge accuses Witts of using 2015 campaign money to buy a six-month membership on a pornography website.

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