Kingston seeks to minimize damage from funds controversy

Rep. Jack Kingston’s supporters rallied around their candidate Friday and downplayed the burgeoning controversy over campaign donations, but Kingston himself was leaving nothing to chance.

His U.S. Senate campaign emailed supporters a rebuttal Thursday night, ahead of a front-page article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that raised questions about what he knew about a controversial fundraiser last year.

And on Friday, Kingston took to the airwaves in Athens and Atlanta, seeking to minimize the damage in interviews with conservative talk show hosts. There is no sign the controversy has damaged Kingston’s political standing ahead of a July 22 Republican runoff election against businessman David Perdue.

“Tomorrow the AJC will continue its baseless attacks on our campaign with new accusations,” Kingston campaign manager Chris Crawford wrote in the email to supporters, which offered a point-by-point counter to parts of the story before it ran in the newspaper. “This is part of a smear campaign being politicized by our opponents in an effort to take down our campaign as yet another public poll shows Jack with a double-digit lead.”

The AJC's investigation found that Kingston's campaign raised more than $80,000 from two companies linked to Khalid Satary, a Palestinian facing a deportation order because of 2005 conviction for music piracy. One donor said employees of the companies were offered bonuses if they contributed most of the money to Kingston.

Kingston, photographed at a Dec. 6, 2013, fundraiser with Satary, returned the donations after the AJC presented him with its findings June 4. Federal investigators are investigating the donations, but the U.S. Attorney’s office has said that Kingston is not a target.

In an interview with the AJC June 4, Kingston denied knowledge of Satary’s criminal past or that donations to his campaign could have come from so-called straw donors, an illegal practice. But an Atlanta attorney representing a man who used to work for one of Satary’s companies said he informed Kingston’s campaign about the controversial donations and Satary’s background at a meeting May 1, six weeks before Kingston took steps to return the disputed donations.

In an AJC story reported Friday, Kingston's campaign acknowledged that its campaign attorney attended the meeting, but denied those issues were discussed.

A spokesman for Perdue said the contradictions fit the narrative of Kingston as a creature of Washington while Perdue, a businessman and cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, offered a fresh perspective that can shake up the Capitol.

Perdue is not planning specific TV ads on the issue at this point, but the campaign will continue to press questions on what Kingston knew about Satary and when he knew it, said Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey.

“With every day more troubling information comes out about the Satary scandal,” Dickey said. “Congressman Kingston still has a lot of explaining to do, but it seems right now that he’s simply been in Washington too long and these are the kind of things that we’ve come to expect from our career politicians.”

Kingston’s backers — and some Republicans who have not taken a side — think “scandal” is too strong a word. For Debbie Dooley, of the Tea Party Patriots, comparing Kingston’s ethical questions to Gov. Nathan Deal’s is “comparing apples to a watermelon.”

Friday’s AJC story revealed that Kingston’s campaign attorney knew about Satary but, Dooley said, it is reasonable that Kingston would not have known since candidates are often well-insulated. Dooley has not endorsed a candidate in the race.

“I think it’s kind of a stretch to suggest that there’s anything unethical that has taken place,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, who recently endorsed Kingston for the runoff after being a prominent backer of Karen Handel in the GOP primary.

“I just don’t see it as a big issue,” added McKoon, a major proponent of ethics reform in the Legislature.

Chip Lake, a Republican strategist who has not endorsed a candidate in the runoff, said “it’s tough to get traction” when talking about campaign finance matters.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be a decisive issue in this election unless there are more details that dribble out beyond what we know now,” he said.

Crawford, in an email Friday afternoon, said the campaign is carrying on.

“Our campaign has been able to focus on the issues that matter most because of Jack Kingston’s decisive action in returning the funds when he had no obligation to do so,” he said. “We continue to be encouraged by the outpouring of support from grassroots conservatives all across this state who are rallying around Jack Kingston’s proven conservative record and vision for Georgia.”