New ethics director David Emadi speaks to members of the press at Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission on Thursday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: Stacey Abrams’ team alleges a ‘political vendetta’

Only four days into his new job as executive director of the state ethics commission, David Emadi told reporters on Thursday that he plans to subpoena bank records from the campaign of 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and groups that raised money to help her in last year’s nationally watched race.

Emadi, whose support for Gov. Brian Kemp during his GOP election bid included cash, would not say what suspected violations of state campaign finance law prompted his decision. From our AJC colleague James Salzer:

“Those investigations are all moving forward,” Emadi said. “What I can say about the investigation into the Abrams campaign is, in the relatively near future, I expect we will be issuing subpoenas for bank and finance records of both Miss Abrams and various PACs and special-interest groups that were affiliated with her campaign.”

Emadi denied any partisanship. He replaces Stefan Ritter, whom commission staffers alleged had sat on violations by the Abrams campaign. From the AJC piece:

[I]n her complaint, one of the commission’s top deputies, Bethany Whetzel, said she and another staffer “met with Mr. Ritter and informed him that we had found evidence of several violations by the Abrams campaign.”

“Mr. Ritter was visibly disappointed with the violations uncovered related to the Abrams campaign and directed us not to proceed with any subpoenas until we could meet with the candidate to discuss her filings,” Whetzel said. “Mr. Ritter never met with the candidate.”

However, Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager, senses a pattern. “For those keeping track, this is the third investigation of us in 21 days by Kemp and his folks,” she said this morning. “It’s distraction and retaliation on a whole series of fronts.”

She described Emadi’s promise of a probe into the Abrams campaign -- in a first meeting with journalists -- as “insane political posturing.”

“They don’t have to subpoena us. They just have to call us up and ask us for documents. Everybody expected to be audited,” she said.

About those three investigations in three weeks:

-- On March 20, a GOP-affiliated group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT, filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service. From the Associated Press:

The group points to roughly $100,000 worth of Facebook ads featuring Abrams, an advertisement for a “Stacey Abrams Fundraiser” that featured Fair Fight Action’s logo, travel for Abrams’ post-election “thank you” tour of Georgia and a professionally produced “highlight reel” of Abrams footage on the group’s website.

The complaint argues Fair Fight Action is supporting Abrams’ political ambitions, not advocating for voting rights.

If proven true, that would be a violation of tax law that forbids political 501(c)(4) nonprofits from providing a “private benefit” to a particular person or group.

-- On March 21, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger opened an investigation into allegations of lost 2018 absentee ballot applications in DeKalb County. “They’re investigating my vote-by-mail program. That’s what they’re doing. Their call was to my mail consultant. They’re asking for details on that,” Groh-Wargo said.

-- And now there’s the state ethics commission investigation. “This is just absolute political vendetta,” Groh-Wargo said.

Abrams has made her own share of post-election moves that Republicans have interpreted as hostile. After her Nov. 6 defeat, Fair Fight Action filed a detailed federal lawsuit challenging the fairness of Georgia elections. Groh-Wargo is Fair Fight’s CEO.

And then there is that pre-election investigation, the one announced by Secretary of State Brian Kemp on the weekend before the Nov. 6 vote, alleging that the state Democratic party had participated in an attempt to hack the state’s voter data base.

No evidence has surfaced, no Democratic officials have been questioned by law enforcement, and neither Kemp nor Raffensperger -- who succeeded Kemp -- has uttered a public word about it since. 

***

A parade of Democratic presidential candidates have visited Georgia already this year. But what they haven’t brought with them yet is any extensive grassroots organization or campaign infrastructure.

Sen. Nikema Williams, the state party chair, put voice to those concerns in a McClatchy story. 

“I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more of the candidates,” she said. “I’m looking forward to them actually setting up an infrastructure and turning out Georgia voters.”

Some Georgia strategists have landed early gigs. Sen. Kamala Harris has hired Reggie Abraham, an ex-Stacey Abrams staffer, to help her South Carolina bid. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren hired veteran Georgia operative Richard McDaniel for her national team.

But no campaign has established a significant apparatus in Georgia. And as we noted earlier this week, hardly any Democratic state elected officials and party figures have picked sides.

***

Timing could be one reason that we haven’t seen Democratic presidential campaigns take root in Georgia. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger hasn’t yet set a date for next year’s presidential primary.

***

On the other side of the ledger, Georgia GOP operative Austin Chambers has been named president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. He was an aide to Gov. Brian Kemp during last year’s campaign and was an adviser to former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in disgrace. 

The committee acts as the GOP’s statehouse campaign arm, spending tens of millions over the last two election cycles to capture and hold control of state legislatures and statewide offices across the U.S. 

***

Wednesday’s print column looked at Republicans who are “tiptoeing” toward the conclusion that climate change is real – including U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, whose First District encompasses the Georgia coast.

In response, Karen Grainey of the Savannah-based Center for a Sustainable Coast pointed us to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, an interactive site that offers percentage estimates of adults who think global warming is real – by congressional district.

In Georgia, northwest Georgia is the most skeptical. Metro Atlanta the least. Here’s the breakdown:

-- First District, Buddy Carter, R-Pooler: 68%

-- Second District, Sanford Bishop, D-Albany: 70%

-- Third District, Drew Ferguson, R-West Point: 62%

-- Fourth District, Hank Johnson, D-Decatur: 79%

-- Fifth District, John Lewis, D-Atlanta: 81%

-- Sixth District, Lucy McBath, D-Marietta: 75%

-- Seventh District, Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville: 68%

-- Eighth District, Austin Scott, R-Tifton: 64%

-- Ninth District, Doug Collins, R-Gainesville: 60%

-- 10th District, Jody Hice, R-Monroe: 63%

-- 11th District, Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville: 64%

-- 12th District, Rick Allen, R-Augusta: 65%

-- 13th District, David Scott, D-Atlanta: 74%

-- 14th District, Tom Graves, R-Ranger: 59%

***

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed that state’s version of a “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill into law on Thursday, making it the sixth state in the nation to attempt to outlaw abortions when a heartbeat is detected.

The bill, known as the “Human Rights Protection Act,” includes an exception to save the life of the woman, much like Georgia’s measure. But unlike Georgia’s bill, it does not have exceptions for cases of rape or incest. 

***

We can pretty much call it at this point: Hurricane Michael victims will not be getting any money from Washington in April.

The Senate on Thursday adjourned until April 29 with another spate of finger-pointing and very little progress on a roughly $14 billion aid package for the victims of recent natural disasters.

Democrats introduced an even larger $17.2 billion package that Republicans are all but certain to reject because of Puerto Rico funding levels.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged senators to “quit playing games,” then everyone hopped on flights home, not to return for another two-and-a-half weeks.

There had been some notable movement later in the day, when Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby and two Republican colleagues met with President Donald Trump at the White House to discuss disaster aid, and presumably determine whether Trump would budge on Puerto Rico funding. David Perdue called into the meeting.

Shelby returned to the Capitol with marching orders to keep talking over the break. “We continue to work. The president listened; he suggested a few things,” Shelby said, according to The Hill newspaper. “He instructed his staff and our staff on approps to see what they could do.”

***

Speaking of Hurricane Michael funding, U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s office was peeved with the way potential 2020 challenger Stacey Abrams characterized the Republican’s involvement in the talks. As we mentioned Thursday, the Democrat said Perdue has “jeopardized hurricane relief for Georgia farmers and families” by siding with President Trump in the related Puerto Rico fight.

A Perdue spokeswoman fired back that the Republican has been “leading a bipartisan effort on disaster relief for months...Anyone who says otherwise is either out of the loop or purposely misleading people,” she said.

It’s worth pointing out that the disaster relief bill the Senate is working from originated with Perdue and Georgia colleague Johnny Isakson. It’s also worth pointing out that Perdue has stuck with Trump as he’s pushed back against any extra Puerto Rico funding, which one could argue has been the big sticking point in the debate. 

***

We’ll call it a little free advice from Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican acknowledged the GOP “got crushed in the suburbs” among college-educated voters in 2018 and urged Republican incumbents up for reelection, including David Perdue, to present themselves as a “firewall” against liberal policy proposals in 2020. Via Roll Call: 

“I can tell you how I think we ought to conduct Senate races: we need to have a referendum on socialism, where the Democrats are trying to take us. And argue to the American people, if you’re uncomfortable with the things like the Green New Deal and Medicare for none, the best way to avoid that is to have a Republican Senate,” McConnell said.

Perdue has been taking a page from that playbook, denouncing Democrats’ shift toward “socialism” in recent campaign appearances. 

***

Democrats, meanwhile, plan to target Georgia voters living in small and medium-sized towns with ads and billboards detailing the negative local impact of President Trump’s policies. NBC News reports the effort is part of the Democratic National Committee’s new strategy that focuses less on the president’s temperament and more on his administration’s actions. 

***

Our WSB Radio colleague Jamie Dupree informs us that the White House has now formally nominated Steve Dickson, a former Delta executive, to head the Federal Aviation Administration. Upon U.S. Senate confirmation, he’d have a five-year term.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X