Georgia ethics panel foresees surge in cases from 2018 campaigns


Hoping to pre-empt election-year problems, the director of Georgia’s ethics commission is planning to meet with the campaigns of major party gubernatorial nominees to make sure they’re following state campaign finance laws.

Election years, particularly ones when candidates are running for statewide office like this one, tend to attract a flood of ethics complaints.

Campaigns and their supporters scrutinize the financial reports of their opponents looking for slip-ups, illegal use of money or donations over the state limits.

Each of the three remaining gubernatorial candidates — Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who face each other in the July 24 Republican runoff, and Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams — has already faced ethics complaints filed with the state.

The commission probably won’t finish investigating those complaints before the election. The commission also doesn’t adjudicate such cases right before elections for fear of weaponizing political complaints: allowing candidates to get headlines if their opponents are fined for ethics violations.

Which is why Stefan Ritter, the executive secretary of the commission, recently told the panel: “There will be a number of cases in the 2019 calendar year. I think next year will be a big year for us in terms of cases.”

Ritter said that, instead of waiting for complaints from the public, his agency is auditing the campaign finance filings in the governor’s race to make sure they are accurate and don’t violate state law.

The candidates for governor had raised or loaned their campaigns more than $22 million as of the end of March, and they’ve raised millions more since then.

“We are going to look at every single candidate’s filings,” Ritter told the commission at its June meeting. “It’s not partisan, it’s across the board, and we are finding violations and problems.”

Ritter declined to disclose what problems the agency is finding, but after the runoff, he plans to meet with the campaigns of the Republican and Democratic nominees to go over where the issues lie.

“I would rather have us be proactive on the front end, tell them what we think are the red flags and address those,” Ritter said. “Our goal is to get them filing correctly rather than dinging them on the back end. We do not want to have a media swarm with people filing complaints but rather get things right upfront.”

In April, a complaint was filed against Abrams questioning $83,000 in reimbursements to her over several years.

The complaint claims several entries in her disclosures for large sums are “inadequate, vague and lacking in statutorily required information” — including several that simply say “reimbursement.” It said those broad terms are in “clear violation” of state ethics rules that require candidates to identify how the money is spent.

Her campaign said it expects the complaint to be dismissed and that Abrams was reimbursed for money spent helping other Democratic candidates.

The complaint against Cagle — also filed in April — alleges he violated ethics rules by using a taxpayer-funded flight to take him to a fundraiser in Savannah in 2016.

During the trip, according to the complaint, the Georgia Conservatives Fund, a political group started by Cagle supporters, raised about $212,000 from donors in Savannah. William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, who filed the complaint, said a review of social media accounts and local media reports doesn’t show any public or official events in Savannah to justify the trip.

Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley responded by providing a brochure that showed Cagle was scheduled to speak at an annual Georgia Hospital Association conference on the date of the flight.

Ritter said last fall that his agency would begin keeping a closer eye on “independent” groups such as the Georgia Conservatives Fund that aren’t legally allowed to coordinate with campaigns, such as Cagle’s.

More recently, Atlanta attorney Simon Bloom filed an ethics complaint against Kemp and his campaign, citing nine examples of people or businesses regulated or licensed by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office who donated to his gubernatorial campaign. 

The commission will look into whether the contributions were legal. Regulated companies are not allowed to donate to the campaigns of regulators, such as the secretary of state, but donations are generally permitted from owners of those companies.

State insurance commissioners, for instance, traditionally receive much of their campaign funding from those in the insurance and small-loan industries that the agency regulates, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviews of campaign reports.

Kemp’s campaign said the candidate has gone “above and beyond” what the law requires by refunding donations given in the names of companies that fall under his regulation.

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