Georgia lawmakers ensnared in a state audit of campaign finance disclosures blamed the electronic filing process, their own procrastination and the person who keeps track of donations as some of the reasons they might have fallen afoul of state ethics laws.
Georgia’s ethics panel Thursday named a dozen state lawmakers who stand accused of campaign law violations ranging from chronically failing to report the money their campaign received to accepting campaign contributions during a legislative session and accepting individual donations beyond the maximum limit. The state didn’t name one lawmaker, saying that person hasn’t seen the complaint yet.
The bank records of the 13 legislators have been subpoenaed and each case will be presented to the commission later this year once the investigation is completed, said David Emadi, executive secretary for the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, the agency formerly known as the State Ethics Commission.
Several complaints allege missed filing deadlines or leaving contributions off of disclosures that show up when cross-referenced with donor records from sources such as political action committees.
Lawmakers on the receiving end of complaints were Rep. James Burchett, a Waycross Republican; Rep. Winfred Dukes, an Albany Democrat; Rep. Pat Gardner, an Atlanta Democrat; Vernon Jones, a Lithonia Democrat, Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat; Rep. Colton Moore, a Trenton Republican; Sen. Sheikh Rahman, a Lawrenceville Democrat; Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, a Norcross Democrat; Rep. Steven Sainz, a Woodbine Republican; Rep. Dexter Sharper, a Valdosta Democrat; Rep. Mickey Stephens, a Savannah Democrat; and Sen. Horacena Tate, an Atlanta Democrat.
Lucas, the Macon Democrat first elected to the Georgia House in 1975, is accused of failing to file five consecutive quarterly disclosures reportedly through June 2019. The ethics complaint also says he received $500 donation from Waste Management in January 2019 during the legislative session, when collecting campaign money is illegal.
Lucas said Thursday that he simply made a mistake inputting the information. He said his late filings were partly due to having open heart surgery last year.
With the in-session contribution, Lucas said he received the check before the legislature gaveled into session but accidentally typed in Jan. 18 when reporting it. Lucas said he takes responsibility for his mistakes.
“I’m supposed to report and I hadn’t done it,” he said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Burchett, a freshman Republican from Waycross, was hit with a complaint for not filing two separate disclosure forms ahead
of a Feb. 12 special election and March 12 runoff this year. But Burchett said he tried to file those forms to no avail because the ethics commission’s website would not let him.
“There were some technical issues with the website,” Burchett said Thursday night. “Some of the drop-down boxes weren’t showing up.”
Burchett said he spoke with a commission staff member shortly afterward and thought the issue had been resolved. So he “was surprised to say the least” when he received a formal complaint in the mail late last month.
“These are important rules and I respect the rules and they need to be followed,” Burchett said. “If it means that I’ve broken the rules, I’m going to have to rectify that however I can.”
Moore, a Trenton Republican, said his ethics complaint is unjustified because he didn’t receive any donations for the filing period ending this past June 30, despite the allegation that he did. The freshman House member suggested politics is at play since he has drawn three challengers for his seat.
“There are plenty of other politicians in the House and Senate who have hundreds of thousands of dollars in their account, but they won’t be targeted,” Moore said. “But if you don’t have any money in your account, you’ll be targeted.”
The violators contacted Thursday afternoon consistently said they will make things right if they made a mistake and understand the need for the commission to enforce campaign rules on candidates who collect money from donors.
Campaign disclosure reports are submitted by candidates for public office to the commission on a quarterly basis. Candidates are supposed to list contributions of at least $100 to the public official or candidate during that reporting period.
“I will stress at this point and time that they are allegations, they do enjoy the presumption of innocence, but this is a significant undertaking that we’ve spent time and resources on,” Emadi said during Thursday’s ethics commission meeting.
Fines for substantiated ethics violations range from $1,000 for the first offense to $25,000 for the third and subsequent offenses. The commission has final say on how much to fine someone following an investigation that can take a year or more to finish, said Robert Lane, deputy executive secretary for the ethics commission.
Typically, it’s a good accounting principle for state politicians to have different people handling donations and expenses and putting together their campaign reports, said a former lawmaker and political consultant.
The onus is on the elected officials to make sure their campaign reports are accurate, said attorney Edward Lindsey Jr., the former lawmaker who now serves on the public policy team of the Denton’s law firm.
“From a legislator standpoint, it’s pretty straightforward: You receive a contribution, you report it,” Lindsey said.
Pat Gardner, an Atlanta Democrat, said she and her husband, who handles her filings, are working to resubmit two years’ worth of information. She received a complaint for not filing four separate disclosure reports between September 2018 and June 30, and for submitting the wrong type of report in a fifth instance.
“I screwed up,” Gardner said Thursday. “It’s pretty embarrassing, frankly. I feel like I’m somebody who submits everything on time. I’m very transparent, so I feel embarrassed, but things happen.”
Gardner said the state’s system is complicated, so it’s easy to make mistakes. But she welcomed the increased scrutiny, although she said more needed to be done to make the process more “user-friendly.”
“I think they’ve tightened up significantly and frankly I think they need to tighten up, and I believe in that kind of transparency,” Gardner said.
Reporters Beau Evans and Jill Nolin contributed to this report.