Georgia campaign ethics panel fines lawmakers, investigates Abrams

By: - December 5, 2019 8:48 am

Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission Director David Emadi Wednesday laid out cases against state lawmakers, Atlanta 2017 mayor candidates and former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

The Georgia agency charged with enforcing campaign finance laws Wednesday handed out five-figure fines to state legislators, made public an investigation into finances for the 2017 campaign for Atlanta mayor and advanced an investigation into a voting rights nonprofit connected to former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.

The commission approved settlements as high as $8,500 on Wednesday from a group of lawmakers caught up in audits of campaign filings that ensnared elected officials from the state capitol to the City of Atlanta and beyond.

David Emadi, who is the director of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, said the audits are a priority to hold people who raise money to run for public office accountable for filing accurate campaign financial reports.

The settlements came the same day Emadi told the commission of new allegations that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former mayoral candidate Mary Norwood accepted excessive contributions during their 2017 campaigns.

Complaints filed Monday allege Bottoms exceeded maximum campaign contribution limits by $382,773 and Norwood by $168,975.

The commission is continuing an investigation into a voting rights group and a political committee connected to Abrams, who was last year’s Democratic Georgia gubernatorial candidate.

The New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action Fund operated in the same office and were led by some of the same people despite laws differing on whether they could support candidates like Abrams. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s James Salzer has a deep dive on this.

Twelve state lawmakers received complaints from the commission this summer after it audited the 236 members of Georgia’s General Assembly. The commission is now auditing elected  officials in 11 counties and cities. They include officials in College Park, Carrollton, Griffin Douglasville, Euharlee as well as the counties of Bartow, Chatham, Effingham, Gwinnett and Macon-Bibb.

“A priority when I took over was trying to bring our standards up to par through a targeted local audit of cities and counties,” Emadi said. “Members of my staff, somewhat randomly, picked cities and counties that were politically and geographically diverse.”

Wednesday’s meeting was a time of reckoning for some state lawmakers accused of missing filing deadlines or in some cases omitting financial information from their filings.

Rep. Pat Gardner, an Atlanta Democrat, was hit with the stiffest penalty: $8,500 for failing to file four reports and not disclosing $10,000 in donations and $20,000 in expenses.

And a $5,000 fine was levied against Rep. Henry Wayne Howard, an Augusta Democrat, for missing deadlines and not turning in multiple reports and not reporting some contributions or expenses.

Rep. Winfred Dukes, a Democrat from Albany, settled his complaint for $3,050. Dukes failed to file some reports and did not disclose about $2,600 in campaign contributions and $1,800 in expenses.

Other consent agreements approved Wednesday included: Rep. Rep. James Burchett, a Waycross Republican, $2,500; Sen. Chad Sheikh Rahman, a Lawrenceville Democrat, $1,000; Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, a Norcross Democrat, $1,825; Rep. Steven Sainz, a Woodbine Republican, $875; Rep. Dexter Sharper, a Valdosta Democrat, $1,500;

Lawmakers named in the ethics complaints blamed their lack of compliance on forgetfulness, or a clerical mistake while filing a report, or health issues. Several lawmakers said the commission’s online interface gave them trouble and Emadi said that a change was recently made to the filing process that should fix that issue.

A new campaign reporting software system will roll out in 2020, so it’s a good time to go over filing reports with legislators, Emadi said.

“I’ve had positive conversations with both majority and minority leaders about doing a training session, not just for freshman but for all of them,” he said.

Two lawmakers still might face fines or other penalties as their cases were not resolved.

State Sen. David Lucas told the commissioners Wednesday that some serious health issues, including open heart surgery in late 2018, caused him to miss several reporting deadlines. The Macon Democrat also said he did not try to break the law by accepting a $500 donation from Waste Management during the 2018 legislative session.

“My understanding of the law, if the checks are postmarked and dated prior to the session, you can deposit them,” Lucas said. “Anything dated after the session began, you could not put them in.”

The case will move ahead, although the commission staff said they would work with Lucas to resolve the matter in the next 30 days.

Three other cases involving Savannah Rep. Mickey Stephens, Sen. Horacena Tate, an Atlanta Democrat, Colton Moore, Trenton Republican, remain unresolved.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.