Oxendine returns $120,000 in contributions

Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has returned $120,000 in questionable contributions that were funneled to his gubernatorial campaign by two Georgia insurance companies.

In campaign reports filed Tuesday night, Oxendine reported the money amounted to more than 8 percent of all the money his campaign has raised.

"The commissioner wanted to be above reproach on returning the donations, regardless of the bottom line impact on our fund-raising goals," said Tim Echols, Oxendine's campaign manager.

Campaign reports from another gubernatorial hopeful, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, show he has not yet given back political contributions that he promised to return from attorneys his office paid to represent the state. Baker, who raised that money for re-election campaigns, may have to hold a fund-raiser to do so because his attorney general's campaign fund is nearly empty.

Both the Oxendine and Baker fund-raising issues came to light as a result of Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations.

The AJC reported May 10 that State Mutual Life Insurance and Admiral Life Insurance Company of America, both headed by Delos "Dee" Yancey III, funneled the money through 10 Alabama political action committees in 2008. Oxendine's campaign filing shows the money was returned to the PACs on May 11.

The PACs are based at Alamerica Bank in Birmingham, which is headed by Donald V. Watkins, a director at both insurance companies. Watkins' son, Donald V. Watkins Jr., is chair of all the PACs. State law prohibits campaigns from accepting more than $12,200 per election from one source. The law also prohibits companies from giving money to the campaigns of officials who regulate them.

The AJC reported the PACs had almost no balances at the beginning of 2008 and received no contributions that year except from the insurance companies. In 2008, the PACs only made donations to Oxendine's campaign.

Yancey has declined to comment on the donations, but a spokesman has said the PACs independently decided to contribute to Oxendine's campaign.

The State Ethics Commission continues to investigate the legality of the contributions. A ruling is expected in late summer or the fall.

The AJC reported in May that Baker's campaigns for attorney general received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from lawyers and firms his office pays to represent the state in court. During five years, those lawyers, known as SAAGs, have been paid $173 million by the state.

Baker told the AJC that he does not accept contributions from lawyers who are being paid by the state, even though state law does not prohibit such donations.

But after the AJC found several contributions from state-paid private lawyers, Baker said he would return the money.

Jeff DiSantis, his campaign manager, said it will take time to go through previous reports and pinpoint all of the SAAGs who gave to his campaigns.

That money will have to come out of Baker's a re-election account for attorney general, not the $700,000 he's raised to run for governor. The attorney general's account has just $4,100 left, which won't be enough to pay back the contributions.

On his governor's race report filed Tuesday, Baker lists returning $1,250 to two lawyers, William Jenkins and Marie Watson, who have been paid a combined $1.7 million over the past five years by the attorney general's office to represent the state.

The report also shows Baker has continued to take contributions from law firms whose lawyers are paid by the state. For instance, Baker's gubernatorial campaign received $17,000 from the Marietta law firm of Gerald E. Moore, the lawyer's family and staffers. Moore has received about $252,000 from Baker's office to represent the state over the past five years.