Stacey Abrams speaks at a June 2019 conference in Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Abrams campaign vows to fight ‘nothingburger’ ethics claims 

Georgia’s ethics commission asked a judge Friday to force Stacey Abrams’ campaign to hand over documents linked to the 2018 race for governor, leading the Democrat’s chief aide to accuse investigators of a “political vendetta” against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s top rival. 

The ethics commission said in a Fulton County Superior Court filing that it requested thousands of documents as part of a probe into whether the Abrams campaign engaged in “unlawful coordination” with third-party groups. 

Abrams’ top aide, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said she’s handed over thousands of documents to ethics commission chief David Emadi’s investigators, but she drew the line at “unremarkable” campaign emails that are “irrelevant to his bogus and politically motivated investigation.” 

“Why are we fighting back? An ‘ethics’ chief should not be allowed to seize private communications from the political rival of a man he helped put in office, with no stated rationale or evidence for doing so,” she wrote in a series of tweets. 

Emadi said Friday that the Abrams campaign has “refused to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas, so we are taking the same legal measures we have taken in all other cases where the respondent has refused to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas.” 

He added: “We will allow the legal pleading to speak for itself.”

It’s the latest clash between the state ethics commission and Abrams staffers that stem from a spate of subpoenas Emadi issued in April seeking extensive financial, bank and payroll records from her campaign, which raised roughly $30 million in last year’s race against Kemp.

What raised the ire of Abrams’ staff, however, was a second part of the subpoena seeking all correspondence between the campaign and a number of left-leaning groups that registered and mobilized voters, many with a focus on energizing minorities.

They include the voting rights group Abrams helped launch after her defeat last year and a nonprofit co-founded by state Sen. Nikema Williams, the leader of the state Democratic Party.

In the documents, Emadi reveals that investigators intend to present evidence that the Abrams campaign accepted donations from four of the groups that exceeded maximum contribution limits for a statewide campaign.

David Emadi, the executive secretary of Georgia’s ethics committee, said the state’s newer, higher limits on donations in state races remain lower than those in other states including California, Ohio and Wisconsin. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Abrams’ attorney has denied that claim, and Groh-Wargo said investigators have failed to prove any wrongdoing. She offered full cooperation to clear up any technical violations. She also questioned why investigators appeared to single out groups working to increase minority turnout.

“Make no mistake: The communications that Brian Kemp’s donor is demanding are unremarkable — but principle must matter,” Groh-Wargo wrote. 

Emadi has declined to discuss specifics but said all candidates from the 2018 campaign for governor are being audited “without any concern or benefit regarding partisan affiliation” as part of an effort to be more proactive after his predecessor was accused of stalling probes. 

The ethics office has also gone to court before to force a candidate or a campaign to fulfill a subpoena request, including in the years-long case against Republican John Oxendine, a former insurance commissioner and candidate for governor in 2010. 

But Emadi’s request has triggered accusations that he’s a political pawn due to his history as a former officer in the Douglas County GOP, a stint working for House Speaker David Ralston and a $600 donation he made to Kemp’s campaign.

In a statement, Emadi said the probe was based on a third-party complaint and that “any attempt to argue this investigation is somehow biased is nothing more than a deflection from the facts.” 

Abrams’ campaign sees something more sinister. Groh-Wargo accused Emadi of pandering to a “political master” and said if the ethics commission succeeded that it risks turning Georgia into a “Jim Crow-style Banana Republic.” 

She said the campaign has provided thousands of financial records, allowed two days of document inspection and answered every question posed in this “bizarre, time-wasting, tree-killing, and power-abusing nonsense of a nothingburger.” 

“But we cannot and will not allow a political vendetta to jeopardize the communications of every future candidate for every office to be subject to Brian Kemp’s fishing expeditions,” she added.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.