A month before Georgia primary voters hash out the nominees for governor, three of the top contenders were targeted with a burst of ethics complaints.
Stacey Abrams’ campaign manager lodged a complaint Friday claiming that aides to her Democratic rival, Stacey Evans, violated state ethics rules by forming a third-party organization to take in unlimited contributions to help her campaign.
A day before, a watchdog activist filed a complaint against Abrams questioning about $84,000 in reimbursements from her campaign committees over several years that lack details about how the money was spent.
And the same activist, William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, also asked investigators to scrutinize Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s use of a state airplane to travel to Savannah in November 2016.
The trio of complaints comes as attention on the May 22 primary is beginning to intensify. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 poll shows that more than half of likely Democratic primary voters are still undecided between the two candidates. Cagle and four other leading Republicans are also locked in a tight race.
Here’s a closer look at each one:
The complaint against Evans was filed by Lauren Groh-Wargo, a top Abrams adviser. It alleges that Joshua White, who was an Evans staffer, sent an email last week soliciting funds for a newly-formed 501(c)(4) organization called “Hope for Georgia” designed to shield donors from disclosure.
The third-party group was created earlier this month by Linda DiSantis, a former City of Atlanta attorney who is the mother of Evans’ strategist Jeff DiSantis, according to records. The complaint cites an email from White seeking donations to the group.
“We moved everything to a C4 structure for donor privacy,” he wrote in the April 18 email to undisclosed recipients. “We have a third of the budget in the door and are trying to fill the gap. We know that the messaging is working and Evans is moving up fast.”
The complaint cites state law that prohibits candidates from coordinating with outside organizations on campaign activities. It called it a “blatant attempt” to circumvent the law compounded by the involvement of Ms. DiSantis.
White confessed to authorities in 2006 of setting fire to a campaign office of Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor when he was an aide to the candidate, saying he did so to cover up the fact that he missed a crucial project deadline.
Another wrinkle: Linda DiSantis, the former City of Atlanta attorney, was once Abrams’ boss. And her son Jeff was incorrectly listed on the complaint as Evans’ campaign manager instead of Candice Franklin.
Evans spokesman Seth Clark called the complaint “frivolous” and that it was “filled with factual inaccuracies and false assertions.” He said White hasn’t worked for Evans’ campaign for months, and said there was no connection between the campaign and the organization.
The complaint against Abrams details dozens of campaign finance records between 2006 and 2017 amounting to nearly $84,000 in reimbursements from Abrams’ accounts.
It claims several entries for large sums are “inadequate, vague and lacking in statutorily required information” – including several that simply say “reimbursement.” It said those broad terms are in “clear violation” of state ethics rules that require candidates to identify how the money is spent.
The Abrams campaign said it expects the complaint to be dismissed but that would it cooperate with the board’s decision.
“When Stacey Abrams became House Democratic Leader, she inherited a caucus that was $75,000 in debt and had critical elections ahead of her, so she invested in Democrats to win six seats and blocked a Republican supermajority,’ said spokeswoman Priyanka Mantha. “She was reimbursed for that effort.”
The complaint against Cagle alleges he violated ethics rules by using a taxpayer-funded flight to take him to a fundraiser in Savannah. It cites state records that show Cagle traveling from Gainesville to Savannah on Nov. 10, 2016.
At the same time, a Cagle-aligned group known as “Georgia Conservatives Fund” raised about $212,000 from donors in Savannah. Perry said a review of social media accounts and local media reports doesn’t show any public or official events in Savannah to justify the trip.
Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley called the allegations a sign that “silly season is upon us.” He provided a brochure that showed Cagle as a speaker at an annual Georgia Hospital Association conference on Nov. 10.
“This type of activity is exactly what his official office travel budget is for,” said Binkley. “Casey spends those funds conservatively, using half of what his office budget allows for air travel every year.”