A former Republican lawmaker filed an ethics complaint claiming a star-studded fundraiser boosting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter is "grossly unethical and illegal."
Carter's staff later counterpunched by leveling two ethics charges against Deal's campaign.
The initial complaint, dated July 17, contends that Carter, a state senator, violated rules barring lawmakers and statewide officers from accepting contributions or pledges for campaign cash while the Legislature is in session. It was filed by John Douglas, a former state senator.
The fundraiser in question was held March 23 in New York, three days after the legislative session ended, and featured Carter's grandfather, former president Jimmy Carter, as well as REM front-man Michael Stipe.
Gov. Nathan Deal's campaign and its allies took issue with invitations sent out before the session gaveled to a close that sought pledges of at least $1,000. The invitation, pictured above, noted that it was "paid for and authorized by Carter for Governor, Inc."
Carter's campaign called it a "pathetic and transparent attempt" to deflect attention from ethics questions facing Deal, including the recent revelation that the head of the ethics commission claimed Deal's aides threatened her to make complaints against him disappear.
“The complaint is utterly without merit," said campaign manager Matt McGrath. "We followed both the spirit and the letter of the law, as we have throughout the campaign. The event in question took place after the legislative session had concluded, and Georgia campaign finance law allows candidates to raise for political parties."
The campaign has argued that the invites were legal because the fundraiser went to benefit the Democratic Party of Georgia and not Carter's campaign. The event went forward as planned, though it's not certain how much money it raised. Republicans say Carter banked $24,000 from New York donors the same weekend, and GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney questioned whether he lined up those commitments during the session.
In his complaint, Douglas said that Carter's defense is "completely bogus and mocks current Georgia law" because the event didn't appear to benefit other Democratic candidates. Douglas, now a Newton County commission member, said Carter should be forced to return the money raised from the fundraiser immediately.
"If this event was to benefit Jason Carter, Connie Stokes and Greg Hecht, it would have been legitimate," wrote Douglas, mentioning candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general. "It plainly was not. The invite was clear proof that this event was purely to benefit Jason Carter."
McGrath said the complaint was "laughable" given that Deal attended a fundraiser during the legislative session with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who heads the Republican Governors Association. That group has spent more than $1.5 million on ads boosting Deal and attacking Carter.
He filed an ethics complaint targeting that fundraiser Friday that highlighted it listed Denise Deal, the governor's daughter-in-law and a fundraiser for his campaign, as a contact. A second complaint questioned a fundraising invite for annual Deal event, Grilling with the Governor, sent during the session.
Deal’s camp said Friday the first event was designed to help Republican organizations and not specifically the governor's campaign. It said the invite to the grill-out was a save the date, not a solicitation, and that there was a "very deliberate" effort to ensure no one could donate or RSVP.
Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber described both as an attempt to use the ethics committee "to play politics with taxpayer dollars" by deflecting attention.
The complaints come amid a broader flurry of ethics activity. The left-leaning Better Georgia, one of Carter's staunchest defenders, was targeted by two ethics complaints filed by residents with ties to the GOP. One was rejected while the other is still pending.
Campaign finance rules are complicated and these types of issues are oft-litigated over months and even years. But questions about Carter's event could give the governor a comeback when Democrats target the ethics questions swirling around his campaign. And Carter's camp signaled it was more than happy to keep the debate focused on ethics.