Cobb Chairman Lee tops in campaign fund raising, diversity of spending

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee has a big cash advantage over his challengers for the Republican nomination in the May 24 primary, despite spending thousands of dollars on things that appear to have nothing to do with winning an election.

Though the spending may not be improper, Lee has spent some of his campaign funds buying food for county employees, gifts and entertainment for the Korean delegation from the county’s sister-city program, and membership dues for organizations such as the Georgian Club and the Cobb Chamber of Commerce.

Lee, elected to a full term in 2012, qualified for this year's election Monday. He had $138,000 on hand as of the last reporting period that ended Jan. 31, after spending $60,000 during the reporting period. He declined to comment on the spending for this story.

Challenger Mike Boyce, who has been campaigning for months, raised $50,000 during this election cycle but had only $6,800 in the bank as of the same reporting period. Larry Savage has announced his intention to run for the chairman's seat, but reported no fund raising activity in this period.

Lee spent $2,000 in campaign funds on Brumby rocking chairs that he gave as gifts to visiting dignitaries from Seongdong-gu, South Korea in 2014. The chairman then spent another $7,000 wining and dining them — $6,000 to rent the Cobb Energy Center for a sister-city dinner, $750 for a singer to perform that night, and about $800 cash he used for “tips,” according to the chairman’s campaign finance reports.

It’s not the first time Lee has spent campaign cash on the county’s sister city program. In 2010, he spent $5,300 on airfare to Korea, and in 2012 spent $700 on gifts for the delegation.

Robert Highsmith, an attorney with Holland & Knight with expertise on campaign finance law, said Georgia law allows such spending and elected officials often use campaign money instead of taxpayer funds to avoid criticism.

Georgia “specifically permits expenditures in furtherance of the public office that official holds. And officials are given wide discretion as to what that is,” Highsmith said. “Anything you can spend public money on, you can spend campaign money on.”

Although the spending may not be illegal, it appears to be unusual.

Charlotte Nash, chairwoman in Gwinnett County, spent no campaign money on gifts or county-related expenses, such as food for staff or office furniture. And Lee May’s finance reports show that the only gifts purchased with campaign funds by the interim chief-executive in DeKalb County was championship rings for a high school basketball team.

Nash said she uses her own money to cover membership dues and contributions to non-profit organizations.

“For me, this is simpler,” Nash said. “If costs are clearly legitimate county expenses, then they are typically covered by the county. If they are not allowable county expenditures, then I cover them with personal funds. If there is any question about a specific expenditure, I cover it personally.”

Savage, who received 10-percent of the vote in the 2012 race against Lee and filed an unsuccessful challenge to the county’s plan to issue bonds for SunTrust Park, said he doesn’t care about Lee’s spending.

“I’m just going to concede the Korean vote,” Savage joked. “It reminds of me of the SPLOST — there’s such an abundance of money that they have to go find uses. Tim has the wherewithal to repay favors and influence people, county staff and anyone else that comes along.

“Quite frankly, I’d rather have him spending his money on that kind of stuff rather than something that’ll actually help.”

Lee did not respond to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the spending. Instead, one of Lee’s campaign advisers replied through email: “…As a matter of principle, we do not share our campaign strategy with the AJC or any other media outlet.”

Those strategies included expenses big and small, according to Lee’s financial disclosure:

  • Thanksgiving lunch for county staff: $275.
  • DOT planning retreat, $1,866.
  • County office furniture, $245. The check was written to Lee's wife, apparently as reimbursement.
  • Speech coaching, $6,000. There are several entries for this at varying amounts.
  • Dinner with "economic development partners," $291. The check was written to his wife.
  • Annette Lee for "reimbursement of direct expense," $1,635. No other information was provided.

Boyce spent his limited money in more traditional ways, things such as T-shirts ($1,300), campaign signs and materials ($1,400), consulting services ($2,000), his website ($450) and voter data ($2,000).

The difference in money can also be seen in the quality of the polling the candidates have done – Lee spent $14,000 on his poll; Boyce spent $1,000.

Boyce, who came up 12,000 votes short of Lee’s 29,000 total in the 2012 election, said he can’t match Lee dollar-for-dollar. But he has been knocking on doors and calling potential voters since last fall, and he believes a grass-roots campaign can be successful.

“I think the kinds of donors and the amounts they give reflect the of grass roots campaign we’re running,” he said. “I’ve already raised more money this time than I did last time. I have more donors. We’re going to be in this all the way until the end.

“It’s not just the dollar amount. Whatever they give reflects a commitment to our campaign. I’m just deeply moved that they’re giving whatever they can give.”