Group backing Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial bid fined $50k by ethics panel

A group backing Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial bid was fined $50,000 by the state ethics commission Thursday for failing to report what it spent to help her win the Democratic primary.

Gente4Abrams (People for Abrams) spent $240,000 for canvassing, social media posts, and print and radio advertising to help Abrams win the primary but didn’t report what it spent or where it got the money to pay for those efforts, the commission said.

The group later registered with the state and reported spending about $685,000 more to help the Democrat’s general election campaign against Republican Brian Kemp.

The commission voted 4-1 to accept a consent order with the group. The one vote in opposition came from Eric Barnum, who questioned the size of the penalty, especially since the panel was going to later vote on a lower $10,000 fine against longtime Republican Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren.

Abrams narrowly lost the 2018 general election to Kemp in the most expensive gubernatorial contest in Georgia history.

David Emadi, the executive director of the commission, said the group agreed to the fine. The organization’s lawyer didn’t appear at the commission’s hearing.

Emadi told the commission he thought the fine for what he described as a “dark money super PAC” was appropriate.

“A quarter of a million dollars was dumped into this race without anyone knowing where the money was coming from,” he said.

An investigation found big checks came from groups in California, Colorado, New York and Canada.

Abrams easily beat Stacey Evans in the Democratic primary in 2018.

Emadi said at the last full commission meeting that an investigation into Abrams’ campaign and groups that backed her unsuccessful bid for governor is ongoing.

Under state law, so-called “independent” committees can work to help get people elected but are not allowed to coordinate their activities with a candidate.

Emadi angered Abrams' backers shortly after he took office in April 2019 by saying he would subpoena her campaign records and those of groups that supported her. The commission sought all correspondence between the campaign and a number of groups that registered and mobilized voters, many with a focus on energizing minority voters.

They included the voting rights group Abrams helped launch after her 2018 defeat and a nonprofit co-founded by state Sen. Nikema Williams, the head of the state Democratic Party.

Emadi revealed that investigators intend to present evidence the Abrams campaign accepted donations from four groups that exceeded maximum contribution limits for a statewide campaign. Abrams’ attorney has denied the claim, and her campaign manager said the commission has failed to prove any wrongdoing.

Abrams' supporters have pointed to Emadi's past ties to the Republican Party to accuse him of bias. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in March 2019 that he is a former officer in the Douglas County GOP and donated $600 to Kemp's campaign. Jake Evans, the panel's chairman, is head of a local Young Republicans group.

Barnum, the commission member who opposed the consent order,  contributed to Abrams’ campaign.