Oxendine ethics hearing details lavish use of campaign money

By: - August 22, 2019 8:10 am

Last month the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission announced campaign disclosure complaints against 13 state lawmakers. The commission is shown at a hearing earlier this year. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A former state Insurance Commissioner and Republican candidate for governor has been accused of diverting $237,000 in campaign funds for personal use in a case that has exposed apparent weaknesses in the state’s campaign finance laws.

A state ethics attorney, Robert Lane, has outlined the case against John Oxendine, including claims that the four-term insurance commissioner used campaign funds to buy a house, pay for child care, a fitness club and high-end vehicles, and other personal uses.

The details were made public at a long-awaited preliminary hearing held Wednesday before the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Oxendine ran in the Republican primary in 2010; one of the complaints against him was filed a decade ago.

Oxendine, who did not attend Wednesday’s hearing, was also accused of spending money raised for races he was no longer competing in and accepting money from political action committees that exceeded the state’s contribution limits.

The commission found there was enough evidence to advance most of the cases to another state hearing, but the panel decided that Oxendine did not violate the law when he continued to spend $200,000 raised for political contests when he didn’t run for office.

But the case against Oxendine also appeared to expose weaknesses in the state’s law that left room for debate on campaign fund loans and whether it’s the candidate’s responsibility to make sure political committees are not exceeding giving limits.

“Looking at the data here, it doesn’t look good,” said Jake Evans, who chairs the commission.

“If you’ve got money going from a campaign account to a law firm in which Mr. Oxendine is the sole equity owner, and money thereby going to pay earnest money or down payment on a house which is deeded to Mr. Oxendine personally – that’s not a good thing,” Evans said.

“The optics are different from the law,” responded Oxendine’s attorney, Doug Chalmers.

“Is that legal?”

Chalmers argued that this amounted to an investment because it was a loan, which was later paid back with interest. That repayment happened after an unrelated ethics complaint was filed against Oxendine.

The commission ultimately did not accept that claim.

“I’m not buying that this was a loan,” said Eric Barnum, who is on the commission.

Lane said there was no documentation to support claims that the transfer of funds was a loan or an investment.

“The transactions that were made by Mr. Oxendine were personal transactions,” Lane said. “He used his law firm as a pass-through in order to transfer funds from his campaign to himself. The law firm is just a convenient shield.”

The commission heard hours of arguments at the statehouse Wednesday, often delving into the tedium of campaign finance rules. But Wednesday’s hearing also shed new light on the allegations against Oxendine.

A check for $97,000 was written from the law firm account in 2013 for a “deposit on house,” which went toward his nearly $1 million home in Fulton County.

He’s also accused of spending more than $27,000 on the Atlanta Athletic Club, which is an invitation-only fitness club and golf course in Johns Creek, and using nearly $13,000 on child care. Oxendine also spent nearly $32,000 of the funds on vehicle payments on a Mercedes Benz and a Jaguar.

He’s also accused of using the campaign money to cover shortfalls in the law firm’s account and make a $12,250 deposit into a retirement account.

Chalmers broadly dismissed some of the new claims as “speculation,” but he specifically denied that Oxendine used campaign funds to repay clients.

The commission also saw enough evidence that Oxendine may have violated the law when he accepted $120,000 from multiple political action committees that were all connected and whose contributions collectively far exceeded the limits on giving.

Chalmers argued that the commission should be holding the donors accountable for that, not his client.

Oxendine, an Atlanta attorney, was first elected to statewide office as Georgia’s insurance commissioner in 1994 when Republicans made major gains around the country but Democrats still held sway in Georgia. He held the office until 2011.

The ethics complaints against have dogged him ever since his failed campaign for governor, when Nathan Deal ultimately beat Karen Handel in a runoff to lead the state for two terms.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.