Georgia pols give $2.7 million (of other people's money) to charity

(Note: An earlier version of this post reported a smaller dollar figure in total charitable giving. Further work the the campaign data discovered additional donations.)

The recently released DeKalb County corruption report has called into question commissioners' use of county funds to donate to local charities.

Former Attorney General Mike Bowers, hired by the county to investigate allegations of corruption, said state law prohibits doling out tax money to charities.

“You don’t have to be a constitutional law expert to know that you can’t spend government money on your favorite charity, no matter how worthy the cause,” he told the AJC.

That may be so, but politicians do it all the time, legally, by using their campaign accounts. A quick scrub of a decade's worth of campaign expenditures across the state found about $2.7 million in charitable giving from the campaign funds of everyone from Gov. Nathan Deal to local school board candidates.

State law dictates that campaign donations must be spent for political purposes, but a special provision allows politicians to dispose of "excess" contributions by giving them to charity. And some politicians love to write checks to their favorite causes, particularly when the money they are spending comes from their own donors.

A popular recipient for this campaign largess are local churches. Candidates have given more than $96,000 in excess campaign donations to various churches. Baptists tended to claim the lion's share of this money.

The late Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Forest Park, donated some $13,000 from his campaign in 2006 and 2007 to First Baptist Church in Forest Park, where he served as a deacon.

For Terrell, who retired in 2005 from the Legislature, the donations were clearly "excess" funds. But other more active politicians find opportunities to spread the wealth.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed hugs a supporter following his victory speech Nov. 5, 2013.

The most active politician who engages in this kind of charity is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Between 2006 and 2013, Reed donated about $104,000 to various charities, although the overwhelming majority of it came in 2013 in the midst of his re-election campaign when the mayor stroked big checks of $10,000 or more to the Anti Defamation League, Howard University (where he is a graduate and a trustee), the United Negro College Fund and Atlanta READ, a local literacy program.

Reed also donated $5,000 to the Trayvon Martin Foundation, the Carrie Steel Pitts Home for Children and 100 Black Men of Atlanta, among others.

For context, Reed's campaign raised $1.4 million in 2013.

Reed is not alone in re-purposing large amounts of campaign cash. Former State Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin made $88,000 in donations in the waning months of 2010, right before he left office. Most of that ($62,690) went to the Georgia branch of the Future Farmers of America.

Some other interesting notes from the data:

  • Boy Scout troops and councils, which took in about $22,000, were popular targets for campaign largess. The Girl Scouts, however, will have to rely on selling cookies, since they received just $3,850.
  • Different chapters of 100 Black Men were also popular recipients. The organization received about $25,000 from a number of different campaigns.
  • Proving all politics is local, another favorite charity for candidates was the local high school. High schools -- including boosters, "touchdown" clubs and related booster organizations -- received more than $51,000 in donations. Elementary schools fared much worse, with about $14,000 in gifts.

In DeKalb, my colleague Mark Niesse reported today that the thousands of dollars in charitable donations that DeKalb commissioners have doled out over the years may be coming to a end.

The county attorney issued an opinion saying that donations that don't bring a substantial benefit to the county appear to run afoul of the Georgia Constitution's ban on gratuities, just as Bowers said it did. You can read that story here.

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About the Author

Chris Joyner
Chris Joyner
Chris Joyner is an investigative reporter. An Atlanta native, Joyner has been with the AJC since 2010.