Deal’s committee keeps big-money inaugural donors secret

After Gov. Nathan Deal won re-election in 2014, his supporters raised $1.4 million to celebrate his victory with a statehouse swearing in and a Gwinnett Center bash headlined by country star Alan Jackson.

What his supporters didn’t detail is who chipped in what to pay for it all.

Inauguration galas typically are paid for by big-money donors, often businesses and special-interest associations with lobbyists at the Capitol. Governors typically let the public know, after all the counting is done, who paid for the shindig, since those donors usually have a keen interest in what the governor does.

But Deal’s team set up the Real Georgia inaugural committee as a non-profit that doesn’t legally have to disclose donors, a few of whom gave $50,000.

“If there is nothing to hide, then why hide it?” asked Clint Murphy, a Savannah Realtor and former Republican operative who briefly headed Common Cause Georgia. “At the end of the day, the people need to know who is paying for the party, how much they are paying, and what access they are getting.”

Tom Willis, CEO of Real Georgia, would not say why the committee decided not to disclose where the $1.4 million in contributions came from. He would only say, “Our intention was always to dissolve Real Georgia following the inauguration, and we did so in a timely manner in full compliance with all reporting requirements for both federal and state laws.”

The governor’s office declined comment, saying his staff had nothing to do with the filings.

Real Georgia’s secrecy is just the latest example of how, critics say, state government and politics, has become less transparent in recent years.

The AJC received copies of Real Georgia's tax forms on the same day the governor signed into law Senate Bill 323, which gives public college athletic associations far more time to respond to open records requests and let any state agency keep records involving ongoing economic development projects secret until the deal is made public.

Many of the donors to inaugural committees give to the events every four years. They also are often big campaign donors that have big business at the Capitol.

Gov. Sonny Perdue’s committees raised about $2.5 million for his inaugural and transition committees. After Perdue was elected for a second term in 2006, BellSouth and AT&T contributed $200,000 to his bash. The companies successfully fought to make it easier to compete with cable providers that legislative session.

Deal's first inaugural and transition committee raised $1.7 million. More than half of that total came from individuals, businesses or associations with lobbyists or lobbyist ties.

Real Georgia was formed as a nonprofit under the IRS tax code 501(c)-4, which covers so-called “social welfare” organizations. The groups can participate in politics as long as that isn’t their primary focus. They do not have to disclose their donors.

The setup was aided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, which cleared the way for unions, businesses and others to raise unlimited amounts of money to use the designation. The Washington Post reported that after the decision, the IRS was flooded with applications to form such committees.

Real Georgia’s legal counsel was Benjamin Vinson, a partner at Dentons law firm and a statehouse lobbyist representing health care interests, the Atlanta Hawks, the fantasy sports association, charter schools and DeKalb County, among others.

“As with any other 501(c)-4, it is not required to disclose its donors publicly,” Vinson said. “The inaugural setup was the same for 2010 and 2014, but the inaugural entity elected to disclose its donors to the press in 2011.”

Former state Adjutant General David Poythress, a two-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate and longtime board member of Common Cause Georgia, said the public should know who paid for the inaugural events.

“Any time you have that kind of money spent anonymously to benefit a public figure, the public ought to have access to that information,” Poythress said. “It’s ripe for the exercise of undue influence over the governor or legislature or anybody else.”

Deal raised more than $14 million for his re-election campaign, and records that show many of the donors to his inaugural were also campaign contributors.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution linked about $162,000 in contributions or ticket sales to Real Georgia by reviewing expenses reported in the campaign filings of lawmakers, political action committees and companies. Of 26 donors, four were lawmakers and one was the Georgia Republican Party. The other 21 were either lobbying firms, associations or businesses with lobbyists at the Capitol, or political action committees.

The Georgia Chamber, the state’s business lobby and a key Deal ally, contributed $12,600 to Deal’s re-election campaign and reported giving $10,000 to Real Georgia.

The trial lawyers PAC, which is among the biggest donors to political campaigns at the Capitol, gave $5,000 to his re-election campaign and $20,000 to Real Georgia.

The owners of United Health Services, a nursing home giant, and their family members contributed about $200,000 to Deal's campaigns and political action committee. The company, which benefited from a special Medicaid rate increase Deal backed last year, contributed $5,000 to Real Georgia.

The largest donors who reported their contributions were AT&T and Lockheed Martin, both of which gave $25,000 to Real Georgia.

Real Georgia’s tax records show donations of $50,000 to the committee, but no donors were identified and those donors didn’t report the contributions in state filings.

The program for his inaugural bash featured a long list of benefactors, from Fortune 500 types to politically-connected Deal allies. The program didn't list the amount of their donation.

While Real Georgia used federal law to shield donors, state lawmakers have used legislation in recent sessions to make other areas of government more opaque.

Besides Senate Bill 323, senators this year tried to bar the public and press from attending disciplinary hearings for judges accused of misconduct. Lawmakers passed legislation allowing defendants who enter a first offender plea in a criminal case to ask the judge to immediately and permanently get their files sealed. In the waning minutes of the session, they approved a measure to make it more difficult for the public to find out if a lawmaker has a potential conflict of interest on legislation.

And legislators have continued to pass special-interest tax breaks that are hard, if not impossible, for the public to track.

Last week the Georgia Public Interest Research Group Education Fund ranked Georgia in the lower half of states for how transparent it is about taxpayer spending. The organization said the low grade was largely because the state makes little effort to let the public know how it benefits from things like tax breaks and incentives given to businesses.

Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation was particularly disturbed this year by Senate Bill 323, the athletics department bill, in part because it was amended at the very end of the session and "transparency advocates," she said, weren't "invited to the table" to discuss the changes.

“Any time the Georgia General Assembly passes another exception to the Open Records Act it is a step backwards for Georgia,” she said. “I would say it seems more and more folks characterize their proposed exceptions (to the act) as narrow. The ramifications for the public at large are bad. Citizens should be bothered by it.”

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who co-authored the athletic department amendment, said transparency advocates were consulted, and he said the change would help departments that are flooded with records requests during recruiting season.

Ehrhart has been in the House for nearly 30 years and he rejects the idea that the General Assembly and its actions are less transparent. He noted, for instance, that the public can watch House committee meetings live online. The Senate does not broadcast most of its meetings.

“I came in during a time when nothing down there was transparent,” Ehrhart said. “I don’t think there is a trend away from transparency. I think it has gotten better.”