Donations to PerduePAC raise fund-raising ethics questions

Lobbyists, interests donated $400,000 to non-candidate last year

One of the leading fund-raisers at the Statehouse last year was somebody who can’t even run for re-election: Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Perdue, who will be finishing his second and final term in office next year, took in about $400,000 last year through PerduePAC, a political action committee his former staffers formed in 2007.

Much of it was given a few days before the legislative session by some of the same Capitol lobbyists and special interests who regularly fund campaigns of incumbent lawmakers, such as road builders, trial lawyers, nursing homes and health insurers.

Political action committees are set up to support candidates or causes. They generally have to file reports disclosing how they raise and spend money.

Ethics watchdogs say PACs allow public officials, special interests or groups to skirt campaign contribution limits — there is no limit on contributions to PACs — and they question why an official who cannot seek re-election needs the money.

Creating the political action committee allowed PerduePAC to take in larger contributions than the governor would be able to receive as a candidate. Statewide candidates can receive no more than $12,200 from one source for primary and general elections.

PerduePAC has not had to file state-level reports disclosing contributions and expenditures because it hasn’t spent at least $25,000 on candidates, said Rick Thompson, who recently resigned as executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission. If Perdue were raising the money in a campaign fund, he’d have to report it to the State Ethics Commission.

Internal Revenue Service filings show PerduePAC remains a formidable entity, especially at a time when money in politics is tight because of the recession. The PAC had about $700,000 at the end of last year, although that figure has likely grown.

The question is, what will Perdue, who leaves office in 14 months, do with the money?

So far, PerduePAC has spent on polling, fund-raising, office space and on maintaining a Web site that promotes Perdue; the Republican Governors Association, which Perdue formerly led; and the state GOP.

John Watson, chairman of PerduePAC, said he hasn’t talked recently with Perdue about how the money will be spent over the next year.

“The plan with raising those resources was to be viable through the second term, to finish strong and make certain you matter as the governor winds down a second term,” said Watson, the governor’s former chief of staff. “Any governor wants to make sure they finish the drill and are still viable in the political marketplace through their second term.”

What “remaining viable” means is unclear. Some Statehouse watchers speculate that Perdue will use the money to help the Republican gubernatorial nominee in next year’s election. He could also donate to an organization such as the Republican Governors Association, or use some of the money to promote legislation or causes.

The creation of PerduePAC in mid-2007 raised eyebrows after the governor’s campaign fund moved $787,000 in leftover contributions into the political action committee. Perdue easily won re-election in 2006, and he didn’t need the excess money to run for office again because state law limits governors to two terms.

Previous governors have given away leftover campaign money. In his last year in office, former Gov. Zell Miller, for instance, gave to churches, colleges, and spent a big chunk of his leftover campaign money getting one of his books published. After Gov. Roy Barnes lost to Perdue in 2002, he refunded some campaign contributions and gave to three Democratic Party funds and the JFK Library Foundation.

When PerduePAC was formed, ethics complaints were filed questioning the legality of the shift of campaign money to the PAC. But Perdue’s staffers had already asked for and received a favorable ruling from the State Ethics Commission on the issue.

Creating a political action committee allowed PerduePAC to take in larger contributions than the governor would be able to receive as a candidate.

For instance, PerduePAC received $15,000 from Waffle House, $25,000 from Donald Leebern, chairman of Georgia Crown Distributing and a Perdue re-appointee to the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, and $12,500 from the Statehouse lobbying firm of Joe Tanner.

PerduePAC also received money from groups representing trial lawyers, highway contractors, bankers and nursing homes. The PAC got money from hospitals, health insurance companies, airlines and state contractors.

Rusty Paul, a former state senator and Georgia Republican Party chairman who now lobbies for the nursing home industry, said it makes perfect sense for groups with an interest in legislation and state funding to continue contributing to Perdue.

The nursing home association contributed $5,000 just before the 2008 legislative session. A nursing home company gave another $5,000.

The state spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year for nursing home services.

“He’s still the governor of this state, and the governor of this state is one of the most powerful executive positions in the country,” Paul said. “He’s going to present one more budget and he’s going to do vetoes on one more set of bills. You just don’t want it to be yours.”

Bill Bozarth of Common Cause Georgia, an ethics watchdog group, said the PerduePAC setup subverts laws on campaign contributions designed to limit the influence of rich donors and powerful entities.

“There is no real obvious need for the money in terms of [Perdue] running for office, so I can only conclude it buys some favor with the incumbent governor,” Bozarth said. “I can’t see any reason why the governor should be collecting any money in this political action committee given that he is leaving office in 2011.”

Legislation expected to be introduced during the upcoming 2010 General Assembly session would change the fundraising landscape for political action committees like PerduePAC.

Bozarth’s group, Common Cause, has worked with House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) on a bill that would prohibit candidates from transferring more than $10,000 in an election cycle to other candidates, parties, campaign committees or PACs.

The proposal would also set new limits on campaign contributions and limits lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers to $100 per gift.

Those provisions will face a tough fight in the General Assembly.

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