Deal lawyer goes after accuser for legal fees

A lawyer for Gov. Nathan Deal is seeking legal fees from an ethics watchdog whose complaints against the governor and his campaign were eventually dismissed.

The motion marks the first time a state official has used a 2010 law that enables politicians accused of violations to go after accusers if their complaints are deemed frivolous.

Lawyer Randy Evans said he is seeking legal fees from George Anderson — a Rome resident who has filed hundreds of ethics complaints during the past 15 years — for a series of accusations Anderson made against Deal. They include claims that Deal’s campaign illegally funneled money to the governor’s daughter-in-law and her company, that the governor was involved in a financial kickback scheme and that the governor conspired with the state ethics commission’s former chairman to derail complaints against him. The charges were dismissed by the commission.

Evans called those among “the most ridiculous, the most outlandish” accusations Anderson made in lengthy complaints to the commission.

“I think this is designed to say, ‘If you abuse the process, then you are going to be held accountable,’” Evans said. “If you are ever going to award attorney fees, this is the case.”

Evans said he has not yet calculated how much money Anderson should pay. The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission could take up the issue at its next meeting, probably later this year.

Anderson said Deal and Evans are using the law to try to silence him.

“They are trying to shut me down, they are trying to make an example of me,” he said. “They would like to silence everybody.”

Anderson said he plans to file a new complaint against Deal, accusing his campaign of “money laundering” by using contributions to pay his daughter-in-law’s company. Deal’s daughter-in-law, Denise Deal, and her company have been paid more than $250,000 by the Deal campaign, primarily for fundraising. Payments to Mrs. Deal and the company were raised in an earlier Anderson complaint that was dismissed by commission staff.

State law does not prohibit a candidate from paying relatives to do campaign work.

Deal in July was cleared of major state ethics violations, at least temporarily ending more than two years of complaints and investigations into his 2010 bid for governor. He agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees for a series of “technical defects” in his financial and campaign disclosures.

Evans co-authored a column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2010 applauding the General Assembly’s decision to enable the commission to award attorneys fees “against those who file a frivolous complaint or who don’t bother to show up for the preliminary hearing on a complaint they have filed.”

However, William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, is concerned that the provision could keep some Georgians from filing complaints against elected officials in the future.

“It is not very comforting in that it provides a chilling effect on people who are honestly trying to make sure our public officials are acting the way they are supposed to act,” Perry said.

While many of Anderson’s complaints are eventually dismissed by the commission, Perry said, Anderson has a right to ask questions. And he noted that Anderson also has filed complaints that led the commission to find violations of ethics laws in the past.

“I think that people may think twice about filing legitimate complaints because they might wind up paying tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” Perry said.

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