Former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine now says he has more than $723,000 in the bank left over from his failed 2010 gubernatorial campaign, money officials say he is supposed to return to donors.
The new figure, which includes $237,000 worth of previously undisclosed investments, was disclosed in a report Oxendine filed last week, the second time he’s amended his reports since mid-August.
The new report came about a month after the state ethics commission filed an amended complaint against the one-time gubernatorial front-runner, accusing him of accepting contributions above the legal limit and improperly spending more than $200,000 on runoff and general election races he never ran.
Oxendine’s lawyer, Douglas Chalmers, said the ex-commissioner asked his firm to make sure the reports he’d filed the past five years were accurate. Chalmers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the latest figure — far more than previously reported — was based on the amount of money Oxendine’s campaign had in its bank accounts at the end of 2010.
It was the second time this year Oxendine has redone his campaign filings and it highlights a long-time weakness in state ethics laws: candidates can misreport what they raise and spend, or report months if not years late, with little fear of consequences.
“There are probably a lot of people out there that have no fear of getting caught because in recent years, nothing has happened,” said Rick Thompson, a former executive secretary of the state ethics commission.
Candidates are supposed to file reports to let voters know who is backing their campaigns and how the money is being spent.
However, state officials, lawmakers and candidates frequently file erroneous reports. They sometimes amend reports years after elections take place. While the commission can assess late fees if they file the disclosures late — or don’t file at all — the state would have to take them to court to make them pay up if they didn’t do so voluntarily.
At a recent meeting of the commission, executive secretary Stefan Ritter said there are more than $3 million worth of outstanding late fees. He wasn’t optimistic about the state collecting most of them.
William Perry, who recently started Georgia Ethics Watchdogs after leading Georgia Common Cause for several years, said campaign reports lawmakers and candidates file are sometimes padded with “fluff.”
“These reports are based on trust,” he said. “You don’t have to back them up with any documentation, you don’t have to show a bank statement.
“The problem boils down to the fact that our commission, even with strong leadership and funding for support staff, doesn’t have the authority to enforce the law.”
Thompson said ethics laws are more strict in some other states. For instance, he said, in some states like Missouri, there is an incentive to pay late fees — lawmakers and candidates aren’t eligible to run if they haven’t paid up.
Thompson said the commission often only finds out about questionable reports — like some of those Oxendine filed — if the media raises issues or if someone files a complaint. Thompson said when he was executive secretary, the commission tried to audit 10 percent of filings. That hasn’t been done in recent years, but Ritter is hoping the commission will have the software to perform more thorough audits soon.
Its complaint against Oxendine is the highest profile filed by Ritter’s staff to date, and signals a more aggressive enforcement posture than the commission has had in recent years.
Oxendine reported in January that his account went from more than $500,000 in the bank to zero during 2014.
After the AJC questioned how that happened — given the fact that he reported spending almost no money in 2014 — the former commissioner said he must have made a filing error. He amended his report in August to show about $518,000 left in the account. He filed another report, after Chalmers’ firm went through bank records, to up the total to $723,000.
The AJC reported in August that Oxendine raised about $750,000 for the Republican gubernatorial runoff and general election, even though he finished fourth in the primary that year and never got to run in those later races.
Commission officials said under state law Oxendine was supposed to return money he raised for the runoff and general election to donors or, if that wasn’t possible, give it to charity.
Chalmers, who was hired after the amended complaint was filed against Oxendine in September, said the former commissioner was not required to give the money back to donors and that, at most, there were “technical” defects in the financial reports his campaign filed during the race.
He also said the statute of limitations precludes the commission from coming after Oxendine for how he handled the finances of his 2010 campaign.