Georgia ethics panel files complaints against 13 state lawmakers

The Georgia ethics commission on Thursday announced it had filed complaints against 13 state lawmakers, saying each broke campaign finance laws including, in some cases, not disclosing contributions they received.

David Emadi, the commission’s executive secretary, said when he took over earlier this year that he was told lawmakers weren’t following campaign finance laws. He said a preliminary audit confirmed that the state representatives and senators may have broken campaign finance laws.

Those who received complaints were Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon; Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville; Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta; Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross; Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany; Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta; Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia; Rep. Colton Moore, R-Trenton; Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, D-Norcross; Rep. Steven Sainz, R-Woodbine; Rep. Dexter Sharper, D-Valdosta; and Rep. Mickey Stephens, D-Savannah.

A complaint was prepared for an ex-lawmaker, but the name was not released because he had not yet been served with it, as of Thursday. Sources told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it was former Rep. David Stover, R-Newnan, who resigned earlier this year.

Many of the accusations involve lawmakers who either were late filing campaign reports or didn’t file them at all, issues that, in the past, didn’t always lead to a formal complaint being filed. Some, such as Gardner, acknowledged errors in their reports, while others, including Lucas, recently filed new reports.

Others involve lawmakers who filed reports that said they received and spent no money, took contributions during the legislative session — which is illegal — or took contributions in excess of the legal limits.

Many lawmakers receive the bulk of their contributions from special-interest political action committees and business associations with interest in legislation, so ethics staffers were able to find contributions that had been given to lawmakers, even though they reported receiving nothing.

PACs and other groups file regular reports disclosing what they contribute.

Emadi told the commission Thursday, “It is an incredible violation of public trust if the violations did occur.”

On Aug. 30, Sharper sent a handwritten response to the commission, saying he has not held a fundraiser or had expenses during the time periods in question.

“As a Democrat in Georgia, lobbyists don’t really contribute much to me,” Sharper said. “Also, I am not on committees that are very active so there are less contributions.”

In a letter dated Sept. 18, Moore told the commission he did not raise or spend any money during the reporting period that ended June 30. However, he said his Jan. 31 filing was inaccurate and that he has since submitted an amended report.

Sainz, who is serving his first term, told the commission he accidentally checked a box that said he had no contributions or expenditures to report and had trouble figuring out how to fix his mistake online.

Jones wrote the commission that his campaign made an error “interpreting the date this report was due.” Once it was brought to his attention, Jones said, he filed the report and paid a late fee.

“My campaign accepts full responsibility and accountability of our report not being filed accordingly,” Jones wrote. “We thank you and commend your office for their hard work and various audits and controls you have in place.”

The commission’s staff in 2017 said it would begin auditing the reports filed by candidates in the Atlanta mayor’s race that year and statewide candidates in the 2018 elections.

Emadi said earlier this year that he was looking into violations by the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and Atlanta mayoral candidates.

Cases against two minor Atlanta mayoral candidates moved forward Thursday, and others are expected later this year or in 2020.

Emadi took heat when he filed a spate of subpoenas targeting groups led by 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 AJC reported when he was appointed in March that Emadi was 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.

The subpoenas obtained by the AJC were filed April 26 and sought 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 wanted 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 included the voting rights group Abrams helped launch and a nonprofit co-founded by state Sen. Nikema Williams, the leader of the state Democratic Party.

In the documents, Emadi revealed that investigators intend to present evidence 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, saying 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 Latino Georgians working to increase election participation among voters of color.”

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.