2017 Atlanta mayoral candidates subpoenaed by state ethics commission

The campaigns of Atlanta mayoral contenders Keisha Lance Bottoms (L) and Mary Norwood (R) have been subpoeaned by the state ethics commission. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The campaigns of Atlanta mayoral contenders Keisha Lance Bottoms (L) and Mary Norwood (R) have been subpoeaned by the state ethics commission. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The two candidates in the 2017 Atlanta mayoral runoff allegedly accepted a combined $550,000 in impermissible campaign contributions, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Both appear to have been served subpoenas from the Georgia state ethics commission.

The commission on Monday notified Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign of allegations that it accepted $382,773 in contributions that exceeded maximum limits established by law.

The commission is also alleging that Mary Norwood, Bottoms’ opponent in the runoff, accepted $168,975 in contributions that exceeded the limits.

The documents outlining the violations do not name the donors whose contributions allegedly exceeded the limits — which in 2017 were $2,600 for a general election and $1,400 for a runoff.

The ethics commission — whose formal name is the Georgia Government Transparency Campaign Finance Commission — issued Norwood’s campaign a subpoena on Tuesday seeking campaign’s bank records of any accounts that were under her control or did business with her campaign.

The AJC obtained a copy of the Norwood subpoena independent of the ethics commission. The AJC requested the Bottoms’ subpoena from the ethics commission, but Executive Director David H. Emadi said it was not subject to Georgia’s Open Records Act.

Bryan Tyson, a local election law attorney, told Channel 2 Action News that the campaigns could face fines if the alleged campaign finance violations are proven.

With 10 viable candidates, Atlanta's 2017 mayoral race was one of the most expensive in the city's history.

Just days before the general election, six of the candidates had raised more than $1 million, with several drawing deeply from their own bank accounts to make personal loans to their campaigns. Bottoms loaned her campaign $240,000 in personal funds.

In total, Bottoms raised $2.7 million for her campaign compared to Norwood’s $2.1 million.

A bitter contest

The mayoral runoff between Norwood and Bottoms was a bitter contest that highlighted the city's racial divide, and included pledges from both candidates to clean up corruption at City Hall.

The aftermath of the race featured allegations of voter fraud. Norwood lost the election by fewer than 1,000 votes.

The fallout from the race has been ongoing for the past two years.

Norwood, who served on the city council alongside Bottoms, also lost her 2009 mayoral bid to Kasim Reed by fewer than 1,000 votes. Norwood said Tuesday that her campaigns have been investigated four times — and exonerated in every instance.

“I look forward to the same outcome,” she said.

Norwood said that her finance team is taking the request seriously, and that she planned to provide a comprehensive response to the commission.

Bottoms told Channel 2 in a text message that her campaign had not yet received a subpoena from the Ethics Commission.

“We are confident we are in full compliance with all Ethics rules and will provide requested documents to substantiate our compliance as appropriately requested.”

An AJC analysis of 2017 mayoral campaign fundraising reports found that Bottoms was the biggest offender when it came to not supplying required donor information on campaign finance reports, such as where her donors work — which is critical when identifying city vendors contributing to candidates. The AJC found employer information was missing for about 20 percent of Bottoms' donors.

The ethics commission is scheduled to hear an audit report on the mayor's race during a meeting on Wednesday.

Bottoms' campaign finance consultant, Rick Thompson, sits on the ethics commission and, in that capacity, rules on complaints against campaigns and lobbyists. Thompson said he would recuse himself from the mayoral complaints, and had no input on the investigation.

Ultimately, one person appears to have been behind both complaints that led to the ethic commission’s allegations.

Charlie Stadtlander, a senior advisor to the Bottoms’ campaign, filed an ethics complaint against Norwood on Dec. 4 — a day before the runoff. Stadtlander had previously worked for Norwood. He said Norwood improperly transferred funds between accounts and misused city resources to help her campaign.

Stadtlander later sought to have the complaint dismissed after he learned that the attorney who the Bottoms’ campaign had assist him with the complaint, Jeremy Berry, was the city attorney at time.

In his role as city attorney, Berry represented Norwood in her capacity as a council member and so drafting the complaint was a conflict of interest and inappropriate use of city resources, Stadtlander said.

Seven months later, Stadtlander helped Norwood’s campaign treasurer and his long-time friend, Jamie Ensley, draft a complaint against Bottoms.

“I would have never have filed that complaint had it not been for Charlie,” Ensley told the AJC.

Stadtlander said he eventually concluded both campaigns were corrupt. But he still considered Norwood a friend.

“The feeling I have right now is disappointment,” he said. “In my opinion, they are equally responsible for a breach of trust to the public.”

What’s next:

The state ethic’s commission will hear a report of the audit on allegations of improper fundraising by the 2017 Atlanta mayoral campaigns of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and her challenger, Mary Norwood. The campaigns have until Dec. 16 to file written responses to the allegations.