Georgia ethics watchdog: Oxendine loan could be a felony

State ethics officials say former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine may have committed a felony by loaning $237,000 that he raised for his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial campaign to his own law firm.

What's unclear is whether ethics officials will wind up referring the case to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens' office for review.

State ethics officials raised the possibility of criminal behavior in their response to motions filed by Oxendine's lawyer, Douglas Chalmers.

Credit: James Salzer

Credit: James Salzer

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the response through an Open Records Act request.

State response

Chalmers has argued that the state missed key deadlines to file new ethics complaints against the ex-commissioner over how he raised and spent money during his failed 2010 campaign for governor.

He said the former commissioner neither collected excess contributions nor illegally spent money raised for races he never ran, as state ethics commission staffers contend. The attorney laid out his arguments in his motion asking the state ethics commission to dismiss a complaint filed against Oxendine's over his handling of the 2010 race.

The ethics commission is scheduled to hold a hearing Dec. 16 on the Oxendine case, which was rekindled earlier this year after the AJC reported that the former commissioner failed to return more than $500,000 worth of leftover contributions from his gubernatorial bid and spent money on Republican runoff and general elections he never actually ran.

Oxendine, a big-money campaign fundraiser as both insurance commissioner and GOP gubernatorial candidate, led the polls throughout much of the Republican primary race before fading to fourth. He collected about $750,000 in contributions for the runoff and general elections he never ran. Very little of it was ever returned to donors, as ethics officials said was required by law.

After 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 about 20 donors.

A month later, Oxendine filed an amended report, showing that he actually had more than $723,000 left over in his campaign account, including a previously undisclosed $237,000 worth of "investments," essentially loans to his law firm.

"If true, this could be a felony as well as a violation of the Campaign Finance Act, " Stefan Ritter, executive secretary of the ethics commission, wrote in his response to Chalmers' motion."There are undisputable reasons why Mr. Oxendine would now like to stop further investigation."

Under state law, candidates can't use campaign contributions for personal enrichment or use.

Commission officials says Oxendine has responded to the investigation by attacking the commission's staff and authority.

The new allegations filed in September were tacked onto another Oxendine campaign finance case that dates back to 2009. The former commissioner has called that case a long-running waste of taxpayer money. Commission staffers acknowledge that part of the delay in finishing the 2009 case was that the commission's staff went through several years of upheaval. But they said Oxendine's lawyers also delayed the case.

Credit: James Salzer

Credit: James Salzer

They also said Oxendine has so far refused to turn over campaign bank records that might answer some of  the questions commission staff want answered. And they said Chalmers' argument that the statute of limitations has run out on the new allegations is bogus.

Chalmers said late Wednesday that the commission staff violated the Open Records Act by releasing its response to the AJC.

"The commission staff’s handling of this case continues to be entirely inappropriate and unfair to Mr. Oxendine," Chalmers said. "In an attempt to divert attention away from the fact that their previous complaint is frivolous, misstates the law, and must be dismissed, the staff has apparently decided to try to change the subject, using innuendo and insinuation to make outrageous new allegations against him.

"We are also disappointed to see that the commission staff has apparently decided to continue trying this case in the media," he added.