New ethics director David Emadi. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Broad Georgia ethics probe targets Abrams — and her backers

The head of Georgia’s ethics commission has filed a spate of subpoenas targeting groups led by Stacey Abrams and the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, prompting criticism that he’s trying to exact political revenge against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s political opponents.

The subpoenas obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were filed on April 26 by new ethics chief David Emadi and seek extensive financial, bank and payroll records from the Abrams’ campaign, which raised roughly $30 million in last year’s race against Kemp.

The ethics office also wants all correspondence between the Abrams campaign and a constellation of left-leaning groups that registered and mobilized voters, many with a focus on energizing minorities. They include the voting rights group Abrams helped launch and a nonprofit co-founded by state Sen. Nikema Williams, the new leader of the state Democratic Party.

In the documents, Emadi reveals that investigators intend to present evidence that the Abrams campaign accepted donations from four of the groups that exceeded maximum contribution limits for a statewide campaign.

Abrams’ attorney has vigorously denied that claim, said that investigators have failed to prove any wrongdoing and offered full cooperation to clear up any technical violations. She also questioned why investigators only demanded records from groups “led by black or Latinx Georgians working to increase election participation among voters of color.”

Abrams officials made similar complaints in April, when Emadi said he would move forward with investigations into campaign filings by Abrams and her allies. Agency officials said his predecessor had stalled those probes after audits raised issues with the filings.

Emadi declined to discuss specifics but said all candidates from the 2018 campaign for governor are being audited “without any concern or benefit regarding partisan affiliation.”

The four groups Emadi singled out are Care in Action, a nonprofit that advocates for domestic workers co-founded by Williams; Higher Heights for Georgia, a New York-funded organization geared toward electing black women; PowerPAC Georgia, an “independent group” that spent more than $5.6 million promoting Abrams and attacking Kemp, mostly funded by liberal San Francisco-based philanthropist Susan Sandler; and Gente4Abrams, a Latino advocacy group.

In all, state ethics officials issued nine subpoenas as part of the investigation. They seek documents from several so-called “independent groups” — which are legally barred from coordinating with political candidates — that were formed in Georgia last year to help Abrams. Several of the groups did not immediately respond to questions about the subpoenas.

The groups targeted by the ethics panel were asked to hand over correspondence with Abrams’ campaign and records involving any spending that promoted Abrams or targeted Kemp. PowerPAC was also ordered to detail any contact with the New Georgia Project, the voter registration group that Abrams helped launch but no longer controls.

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to supporters in Atlanta. Abrams tells The Associated Press she will not run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2020 despite being heavily recruited by national party leaders. Abrams left open the possibility of running for president, though she says she’s in no hurry to make that call as she continues her advocacy on voting rights and educating citizens ahead of the 2020 census. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)

FILE - In this April 3, 2019, file photo, Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks during the National Action Network Convention in New York. Abrams tells The Associated Press she will not run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2020 despite being heavily recruited by national party leaders. Abrams left open the possibility of running for president, though she says she’s in no hurry to make that call as she continues her advocacy on voting rights and educating citizens ahead of the 2020 census. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Photo: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

‘Fishing expedition’

The target of the inquiries, if not the scope, came as little surprise.

Emadi, a former Douglas County prosecutor, has said the investigations were spurred by audits of contribution and expenditure reports that candidates and political groups are required to file. The probe, he said, is part of an effort by state authorities to be more proactive in reviewing reports after his predecessor was accused of stalling probes.

That’s led to accusations that Emadi is playing politics by investigating Abrams. The AJC reported when he was appointed that Emadi is a former officer in the Douglas County Republican Party who once worked briefly for GOP House Speaker David Ralston. He also donated $600 last year to Kemp’s campaign for governor.

All the stalled cases that Emadi said he would restart at his initial press conference involve Democrats or left-leaning groups. Emadi vowed to prosecute wrongdoers, no matter the party affiliation, though he would not disclose whether he was pursuing any cases against Republicans or conservative groups.

“I fundamentally believe that to be a neutral arbiter, to be an impartial umpire calling balls and strikes, you can’t affiliate with any of that,” Emadi said. “This is an inherently political position, but as a former prosecutor, I am comfortable and I have been comfortable making decisions that people may not like.”

Abrams’ top aide, Lauren Groh-Wargo, called it “insane political posturing” to cast suspicion on Abrams, who may run against Kemp again in 2022.

In a statement Tuesday, Groh-Wargo drew a line between the Emadi investigation and allegations Kemp made the weekend before the election that the state Democratic Party had participated in an attempt to hack the state’s voter database. No evidence has surfaced about that claim since.

“This move by Brian Kemp’s so-called ‘ethics’ commissioner is an unprecedented abuse of power against his political opponent and specifically targeting organizations that engage voters of color,” said Groh-Wargo, who was Abrams’ campaign manager.

“These intimidation tactics, which are intended to shut down and silence organizations led by Georgians of color, will not stand,” Groh-Wargo said, “and we will fight back against Kemp and his cronies with every tool in our arsenal.”

Abrams’ attorney, Joyce Gist Lewis, wrote Emadi shortly after his press conference that the Democrat has “nothing to hide” and would offer her full cooperation without a subpoena. She added that Abrams would promptly amend any “technical reporting errors” identified by ethics investigators.

After the subpoenas were filed, seeking documents dating to May 2017, Lewis questioned the scope of the inquiry, which was initially focused on a more narrow complaint. She also said in a May 9 letter that investigators failed to demonstrate probable cause for widening the investigation or give her campaign enough time to respond.

“A continued failure by the commission to comply with the aforementioned regulatory requirements and procedures will suggest, at best, a fishing expedition,” Lewis wrote.

Soon after, Emadi wrote claiming that ethics investigators uncovered potential additional violations, including those against the four groups he singled out. He dismissed accusations that he was pursuing a political vendetta, insisting his probe is being conducted in a “fair and impartial manner.”

“It is disappointing that an insinuation to the contrary would be made,” he wrote.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X