The state ethics commission handed colorful former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine a split decision Wednesday in his case alleging that he raised illegal contributions during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign and spent money on races he never ran.
Citing the state’s statute of limitations, the panel dismissed complaints that Oxendine took 19 contributions that were over the legal limit during his 2010 race.
But the commission also decided to move ahead on charges that Oxendine spent more than $200,000 in 2010 runoff and general election contributions, despite the fact that he never ran those races. That keeps the complaint against Oxendine’s handling of his 2010 gubernatorial race alive and means it won’t be decided until 2016, at the earliest.
“It was kind of a mixed bag,” said Douglas Chalmers, Oxendine’s lawyer. Chalmers said Oxendine may appeal the commission’s ruling in Superior Court.
The commission’s decision to dismiss the contributions complaints — based on the fact that the allegations were filed years after the money was collected — could have an impact on several other cases pending before the commission.
“The reality is … there may well be some things we can do nothing about,” commission Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said.
The commission spent about six hours hearing arguments between Chalmers and the panel’s lawyer, Robert Lane, in a case that started in 2009. It was rekindled this fall after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the former commissioner failed to return more than $500,000 worth of leftover contributions from his gubernatorial bid and spent money raised for Republican runoff and general election campaigns that he never actually ran.
Oxendine led the polls throughout much of the 2010 Republican primary race before fading to fourth. He collected about $750,000 in contributions for the runoff and general elections.
Oxendine has been out of politics since leaving office in January 2011, but very little of the leftover money was ever returned to donors, as ethics officials said was required by law.
After the AJC report, ethics commission staffers filed an amended complaint against Oxendine, accusing him of improperly spending more than $208,000 raised for the runoff and general elections and accepting more than the legal limit in contributions from 19 donors.
A month later, Oxendine filed an amended report, showing that he actually had more than $723,000 left over in his campaign account, including a previously undisclosed $237,000 worth of “investments” in his law firm. His latest amended campaign disclosure says all “investments” were returned in October.
Under state law, candidates can’t use campaign contributions for personal enrichment or use. A filing by the state earlier this month suggested Oxendine could face felony charges that he loaned campaign money to his business, but that issue was not raised during Wednesday’s hearing. Chalmers called the felony comment a “gratuitous” attack on the former commissioner.
The new allegations filed in September were tacked onto another Oxendine campaign finance case that dates to 2009.
State auditing of campaign reports largely disappeared over the past few years as the commission devolved into finger-pointing and costly whistleblower lawsuits that led to virtually no work getting done on ethics cases.
Among the casualties of that era was a case against two insurance companies accused of funneling $120,000 in illegal contributions to Oxendine’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. The case against the insurers was dismissed in 2014 because the commission’s staff had made so little progress on it. But commission staffers continued to move ahead with its case against Oxendine, the recipient of the donations.
The rejuvenated commission hired new staffers and got a big budget boost from Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers this year. The Oxendine case was one of the first big tests for the beefed-up commission.
Wednesday’s rulings mean the case will continue into 2016, when staffers hope to receive bank records that will give them more detail about how the former commissioner spent money and where the leftover money is.
Chalmers argued that the contribution and expenditures listed in the amended complaint were barred by the statute of limitations from being considered by the commission because they occurred in 2009 and 2010.
William Perry, the head of the group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, assailed Wednesday’s decision.
“Loopholes in the law and problems created by the Legislature’s lack of funding of the ethics commission led to today’s protection of a guilty person rather than the protection of the innocent or the citizens of Georgia,” Perry said.
Chalmers said it was time the commission finished the case against Oxendine.
“My client has been waiting a long time,” he said. “He would like to clear his name.”
Lane said because the original complaint against Oxendine was filed in 2009, within the statute of limitations period, the commission could consider the newly discovered issues tacked onto that complaint. Using Chalmers’ argument, Lane said, would limit the commission’s ability in some cases to include new violations that staffers find when they investigate complaints citizens make against candidates.
Commission member Dennis Cathey, said: “I don’t think our rules contemplate that further allegations can’t be made. Somewhere we have to kick in with common sense.
“I can’t imagine we created a vehicle that ongoing revelations … must be blindfolded and gagged.”
At one point, Cathey told Chalmers, “Your goal is one thing, our goal is to seek the truth.”
Chalmers said once the ethics case against Oxendine is completed, the former commissioner intends to return his leftover contributions to donors.
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