Former Georgia Insurance Commissioner and Republican gubernatorial hopeful John Oxendine is fighting the latest ethics charges against him in federal court. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Oxendine suit claims ethics charges are rooted in unconstitutional law

Former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has filed a federal lawsuit against the state ethics commission saying its newest charges against him — that he illegally benefited personally from campaign funds raised for his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial run — stem from an unconstitutionally vague state law.

Oxendine has been battling ethics complaints since a year before he lost the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary after being the race’s one-time front-runner.

Following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, a complaint was filed in 2009 accusing two insurance companies of funneling $120,000 in illegal contributions to Oxendine’s campaign.

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An ethics complaint against the insurers accused of giving the money to Oxendine was dismissed in 2014 because the ethics commission’s staff had made so little progress on it. But the commission didn’t dismiss charges against Oxendine, the recipient of the donations.

The case remained largely dormant until the AJC reported in 2015 that Oxendine failed to return more than $500,000 worth of leftover contributions from his gubernatorial bid and that he spent money raised for Republican runoff and general election campaigns that he never ran because he lost in the GOP primary.

Oxendine amended his reports in October 2015 to show more than $700,000 left over, including $237,000 in loans to his law firm, which he repaid with $8,700 worth of interest.

Following the AJC report, ethics commission staffers filed an amended complaint, 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.

The commission dismissed many of the charges in December 2015 after Oxendine’s campaign lawyer, Douglas Chalmers, argued that the statute of limitations had run out on charges involving the 2010 campaign.

But the commission kept alive the allegations that he took illegal contributions from the insurance companies and spent money raised for races he never ran, and the Georgia Court of Appeals declined to dismiss the case in June.

Also this summer, the commission filed a new complaint alleging that he illegally benefited personally from the law firm loans. Chalmers said Georgia law states that campaigns can invest funds they raise.

But ethics officials have questioned whether the loans were used to “subsidize” Oxendine’s business and “lifestyle.”

In the federal lawsuit, Oxendine is arguing that state law does not clearly define what is a prohibited use of campaign money. “The statute … appears to be about what campaign contributions are — not what may be done with them,” the lawsuit said.

It asks for the court to throw out the part of Georgia’s campaign finance law that prohibits candidates from using campaign contributions as “personal assets,” saying it is vague.

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