Georgia legislator, ex-commissioner could face criminal investigations

A state representative and a former Clayton County commissioner could face criminal investigations for their handling of campaign cash, while a former Fulton County commissioner could face civil penalties.

The state’s ethics commission, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, on Wednesday found probable cause that state Rep. Earnest G. Smith, an Augusta Democrat, violated various state laws in his handling of campaign cash.

The commission’s staff recommended that possible violations by Smith be referred to the Attorney General’s Office for a criminal investigation. But commissioners postponed action on the recommendation, giving Smith more time to provide documents he says will show he did nothing criminal.

A commission investigation found Smith committed 88 violations of campaign finance laws. Among them: Smith allegedly failed to disclose property he owned on personal financial disclosure reports and failed to report $7,503 in campaign contributions and $25,297 in campaign expenditures since December 2010.

Commission attorney Robert Lane said $19,256 of the unreported expenditures were checks made out to “cash,” and Smith has provided no receipts showing how the money was spent. Lane said the Attorney General’s Office should investigate to determine whether Smith used the money for personal instead of campaign purposes — a move that would amount to theft.

Smith told commissioners he can produce receipts that will show he spent the money on legitimate campaign expenses.

“At no time has there ever been a misappropriation of campaign funds,” he said. “I’ve never spent one nickel for my personal use.”

Commissioners voted 3-1 to find probable cause of violations but postponed action on a referral to the attorney general until April.

In a separate case, former Clayton County Commissioner Wole Ralph also could face a criminal investigation.

A commission investigation found 17 violations by Ralph, who left office in 2012. Among other things, the investigation found he deposited 107 campaign contributions totaling $68,025 into his personal bank accounts, failed to report or itemize $109,200 in contributions, and spent $88,000 on expenses that were not “ordinary and necessary” campaign costs.

By a unanimous vote, the commission concluded it is reason to believe Ralph violated campaign finance laws. The commission may refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.

Ralph’s attorney, Doug Chalmers, asked for an extension of the case but was denied. He said his client thought his case was resolved long ago and was surprised when new allegations were recently made against him.

The commission also found probable cause for several violations by former Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards, who left office last year. The commission launched an investigation of Edwards after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Channel 2 Action News and the Georgia News Lab reported earlier this year that Edwards could not account for nearly $80,000 in campaign cash.

The commission subpoenaed Edwards’ bank records and found he spent the “missing” money on legitimate campaign expenses but failed to report them. The commission did find probable cause that Edwards misspent nearly $14,000 on membership and dues at a local business club. It also found he failed to file two campaign reports.

Edwards could face civil penalties if the allegations are proved to be true. Neither Edwards nor his attorney attended Wednesday’s hearing, but his attorney later declined to comment.

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