The new director of the state ethics commission plans to subpoena bank records from the campaign of 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and groups that raised money to help her in last year’s nationally watched race.
Former Douglas County prosecutor David Emadi, who started his new job Monday, also said his office will soon decide whether to prosecute the campaigns of Atlanta mayoral candidates.
Emadi's predecessor, Stefan Ritter, was accused of stalling investigations after the commission audited campaign reports from the organizations last year.
Ritter, who was also accused of watching porn at work, resigned earlier this year.
Abrams is expected to announce soon whether she will run for the U.S. Senate or president next year, or run for governor in 2022.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager, said, “The Abrams campaign worked diligently to ensure compliance throughout the election and, had we been notified of any irregularities, would have immediately taken action to rectify them.
“The new ethics chief — a Kemp donor and former Republican Party leader — is using his power to threaten and lob baseless partisan accusations at the former Abrams campaign when they should be focused on real problems like the unethical ties between the governor’s office and voting machine lobbyists instead.”
While not getting into specifics of the commission’s investigation, Emadi made general remarks about the cases after being introduced to reporters by ethics commission Chairman Jake Evans on Thursday.
“Those investigations are all moving forward,” Emadi said. “What I can say about the investigation into the Abrams campaign is, in the relatively near future, I expect we will be issuing subpoenas for bank and finance records of both Miss Abrams and various PACs and special-interest groups that were affiliated with her campaign.”
More than a dozen “independent groups,” mostly funded by out-of-state donors, were created in Georgia last year to help support Abrams’ effort. Emadi said he expects the documents the commission will review will be “voluminous,” likely meaning the investigation will take time.
He also said all the filings from the mayoral candidates “are under investigation.”
“In the relatively near future, I expect we will make the decision (whether) to go forward with prosecution on a case-by-case basis,” Emadi said.
The agency, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, is charged with collecting campaign finance, vendor gift and lobbying expenditure reports; registering lobbyists; issuing advisory opinions; and dispensing penalties for violations.
Emadi was accused of partisanship in his plans to investigate Abrams and the mayoral candidates. The candidates he mentioned being under investigation are Democrats, and he is 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 Republican Brian Kemp's successful campaign for governor. Kemp narrowly beat Abrams in last year's election.
The commission also audited the campaign filings of Republican gubernatorial candidates, but staffers say they found no violations. The commission is still investigating separate ethics complaints that partisans filed last year against the Kemp and Abrams campaigns.
Emadi vowed to prosecute wrongdoers, no matter the party affiliation, and he said he won’t even vote while serving in the job.
“I fundamentally believe that to be a neutral arbiter, to be an impartial umpire calling balls and strikes, you can’t affiliate with any of that,” Emadi said. “This is an inherently political position, but as a former prosecutor, I am comfortable and I have been comfortable making decisions that people may not like. I may not be everyone’s best friend, but I am OK with that.”
The investigations into the Abrams and mayoral campaigns came out of audits of contribution and expenditure reports candidates and political groups have to file when they raise and spend money on campaigns. The audits were part of an effort by Ritter to be more proactive in reviewing reports after years during which most complaints were filed following investigations by the media or opposing campaigns.
Top commission staffers filed complaints against Ritter in December, saying that potential violations that those audits found were sat on by the agency. Ritter denied wrongdoing when asked about the complaints filed against him.
The officials did not detail what the potential campaign finance violations were, and neither did Emadi.
However, in her complaint, one of the commission’s top deputies, Bethany Whetzel, said she and another staffer “met with Mr. Ritter and informed him that we had found evidence of several violations by the Abrams campaign.”
“Mr. Ritter was visibly disappointed with the violations uncovered related to the Abrams campaign and directed us not to proceed with any subpoenas until we could meet with the candidate to discuss her filings,” Whetzel said. “Mr. Ritter never met with the candidate.”
The Abrams campaign raised a record $27.6 million for her run for governor. Her fundraising prowess was particularly impressive considering tens of thousands of donations came from across the country, many in small amounts, such as $5 or $10.
"Independent groups," which are not legally allowed to coordinate with candidates, spent millions more, with most of the money coming from out-of-state donors, such as San Francisco Democratic megadonor Susan Sandler, who put $5.6 million into an organization called Power PAC that supported the Abrams campaign.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.