Ethics panel sends Oxendine case to trial

Former state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine will face an administrative hearing and possible fines on allegations that he violated state ethics laws.

The state ethics commission voted unanimously Friday to forward his case to an administrative law judge for what amounts to a civil trial. The commission decided that probable cause existed that Oxendine violated campaign finance laws in his 2010 bid for the Republican nomination for governor.

The commission also dismissed a complaint against former Gov. Roy Barnes, agreed to settle a case involving the lobbyist who paid for Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to travel to Europe over Thanksgiving 2010, and delayed until at least July action on a series of cases involving Gov. Nathan Deal.

Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said "there is a lot of circumstantial evidence" to forward the Oxendine case for a hearing. Oxendine now has 30 days to negotiate a settlement before a hearing.

Oxendine attorney Stefan Passantino did not dispute that his client's campaign accepted contributions from 10 political action committees and two Rome-based insurance companies that used the PACs in 2008 to funnel $120,000 to Oxendine's campaign. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first disclosed the contributions, which violate contribution limits, in 2009. Instead, Passantino argued that the law placed an unfair burden on the campaign to know that the contributions were all linked to the same individuals and organizations.

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State law says an individual may not knowingly use multiple entities he controls to exceed the limits. But it also says no candidate may accept contributions that exceed allowable amounts. Passantino said that creates "a strict liability situation."

"You and I know -- and everybody knows -- candidates don't look at every single check," he said.

He also said Oxendine voluntarily refunded the money and that there has never been proof that Oxendine or anyone on the campaign knew the contributions violated the law.

But commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein said the law does not make a distinction for unknowingly accepting more money than is allowed and that if Oxendine was not aware of the connections among the donors, he should have.

"Same address, same amounts, checks drawn from the same bank, all signed by the same person," she said. "The campaign should have recognized they came from affiliated PACs."

Afterward, Passantino said he was "disappointed that they were unwilling to completely exonerate John today."

But he added, "I have no doubt that any further inquiry will show what the last three years of investigation have shown: There is absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by John Oxendine or his staff."

Oxendine faces fines of up to $1,000 per violation. The case also may be forwarded to law enforcement for criminal action, or Oxendine could be cleared of any wrongdoing.

Another Passantino client, lobbyist Chris Brady, had his case resolved. Brady paid for Ralston, his chief of staff and the speaker's family to to visit Germany and the Netherlands in 2010 to study mag-lev train service. Brady, however, did not register as a lobbyist or disclose the trip until January 2011.

Passantino argued that the state's ethics law in effect at the time did not consider Brady's expenditure on Ralston's trip to be lobbying. He and the commission had a lengthy discussion about what constitutes lobbying as the law apparently limits it specifically to an attempt to influence an elected official about legislation.

Passantino said no legislation regarding mag-lev trains was before the General Assembly at the time. But William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, which brought the complaint, argued that the Legislature was likely to consider the issue at some point and to determine that not to be lobbying would gut the state's disclosure laws.

The commission was prepared to table Brady's case, but Passantino said his client was willing to settle the case. Brady agreed to pay a $300 fine for failing to register on time and for filing disclosure reports after the deadline.

Also Friday, the commission cleared Barnes of accusations that he failed to file lobbyist reports. Barnes, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid in 2002 and ran again in 2010, said the complaint was an example of "no good deed goes unpunished."

In 2007, Barnes was representing a client before a local zoning board and determined that the broad wording of state ethics law could determine that to be lobbying. He registered as a lobbyist, but before filing any disclosure reports he received an advisory opinion from the commission clarifying the law: He did not have to register. If he was not required to register, Barnes said, how could he have been required to file lobbyist reports?

The commission agreed and unanimously voted to dismiss the complaint.

Meanwhile, Murray-Obertein said the commission's staff had hoped to present its cases against Deal on Friday, but she said it was not ready.

The five complaints pending against Deal, a Republican, involve his successful bid for governor in 2010 and are largely based on reporting by the AJC. They accuse Deal of personally profiting from his campaign's aircraft rentals, of improperly using state campaign funds for legal bills related to a federal ethics investigation and of accepting campaign contributions that exceed limits.

Continuing coverage

The state ethics commission voted unanimously Friday to forward a case against former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine to an administrative hearing. The case involves 10 PACS and two Rome-based insurance companies that funneled $120,000 to Oxendine's gubernatorial campaign in 2008. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first disclosed the contributions in 2009.

The commission also resolved a case against lobbyist Christopher Brady, who paid $17,000 for House Speaker David Ralston, his family and chief of staff to visit Europe over Thanksgiving in 2010 to study mag-lev train service. Brady, who did not register as a lobbyist, will pay a $300 fine. The AJC revealed the trip in January 2011.

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