Oxendine loses bid to have Georgia ethics complaints dismissed

A Fulton County Superior Court judge decided Tuesday that seven years isn’t too long for a politician to wait for the state ethics commission to take final action on a complaint.

Judge Henry Newkirk rejected former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s bid to get ethics charges stemming from his failed 2010 campaign for governor dismissed. One of those charges dates to 2009.

Newkirk ruled that the state ethics commission should be able to adjudicate Oxendine’s case before the former longtime Georgia politician can fight the issue in court.

“Under clearly established Georgia law, any party to an administrative action must completely exhaust their administrative remedies before seeking judicial review,” Newkirk wrote.

The Oxendine case is one of the most high-profile complaints the commission has worked on in the past year. It is also important because some ethics watchdogs were concerned that if he were successful before Newkirk, it could lead to more politicians asking the courts to interpret state ethics laws, rather than leaving it up to the commission.

“The Legislature has for a long time tried to limit the power of the commission,” said William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “So for a court ruling to back up the commission’s interpretation of its power and authority is very important.”

Stefan Ritter, the executive director of the ethics commission, said Tuesday, “We think it is the correct decision.” Oxendine’s attorney, Douglas Chalmers, declined to comment.

Oxendine, the one-time front-runner in the Republican race for governor in 2010, has been battling ethics complaints since 2009. Following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, a complaint was filed accusing two insurance companies of funneling $120,000 in illegal contributions to Oxendine’s gubernatorial campaign.

An ethics complaint against the insurers for giving the money 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.

Since the original complaint was filed, the commission has gone through several executive directors and key staffers, some high-profile whistleblower lawsuits and a fluctuating budget. At times, almost no work was getting done on ethics complaints.

Meanwhile, Oxendine’s case remained largely dormant until the AJC reported last year that he 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 the primary.

Following the AJC report, ethics commission staffers filed an amended complaint against Oxendine, 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 in December after Chalmers argued that the statute of limitations had run out on charges involving the 2010 campaign.

But the commission kept alive the allegations that he took illegal contributions from the insurance companies and spent money raised for races he never ran, rather than returning it to donors.

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