Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to guests after her keynote speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)

Judge denies subpoenas in Abrams campaign finance case

A judge ruled in favor of Democrat Stacey Abrams’ 2018 campaign for governor Friday, denying a request from the Georgia ethics commission for more documents in an attempt to find campaign finance violations.

In a one-page order, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick said she didn’t have jurisdiction to enforce subpoenas from the commission.

The decision came in a case where the state ethics commission is investigating an allegation that the Abrams campaign illegally coordinated with several nonprofit organizations that supported her run for governor against Republican Brian Kemp.

Attorneys for the Abrams campaign told Barwick on Thursday that they had already turned over 4,000 documents showing checks, wire transfers, bank records and campaign transactions.

They said the ethics commission lacks evidence of wrongdoing, and now it’s trying to dig into personal emails and other documents unrelated to the allegations.

Abrams’ former campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said the ruling should conclude the ethics commission’s investigation, which was pursued by its director, David Emadi, a Kemp supporter.

“We are grateful that the court recognized the overreach by Mr. Emadi and quickly put an end to his attempt to enlist the court in a partisan fishing expedition,” Groh-Wargo said. “It’s time for Brian Kemp’s political henchman to end this charade.”

An attorney for the ethics commission said in court that he needed an explanation for spending by the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group founded by Abrams, and an affiliated organization, the New Georgia Project Action Fund.

The organizations hired canvassers, sought donations and supported Abrams in mass emails, but neither the groups nor the campaign reported those items in spending disclosures, Assistant Attorney General Christian Fuller said in court Thursday.

But those activities and emails don’t show direct communications that would justify an allegation of illegal campaign coordination, an attorney for the Abrams campaign said. Georgia law prohibits independent groups from coordinating with candidates.

Barwick’s order relied on the precedent of a prior ethics case in which courts lacked jurisdiction to enforce subpoenas from the ethics commission during a preliminary investigation.

“We disagree with the judge’s ruling and are considering all appellate options at this time,” Emadi said Friday.

The future of the ethics case against the Abrams campaign is unclear.

For the ethics commission to move the case beyond its preliminary investigation, it would have to make a finding that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that campaign finance laws were violated.

Abrams’ campaign has said the commission tried to subpoena more documents because evidence showing improper activities doesn’t exist.

The subpoenas were sought by Emadi in one of his first actions last year when he became the director of the commission, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

The agency requested all correspondence between the campaign and a number of groups that registered and mobilized voters, many with a focus on energizing minorities.

Emadi, a former Douglas County GOP officer and donor to Kemp, said at the time that he intended to present evidence that the groups’ donations exceeded contribution limits. Abrams’ attorneys have denied that claim.

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.