Oxendine taking state of Georgia to court to fight ethics allegations

Former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine is asking a Superior Court judge to reverse state ethics commission decisions in December that kept alive complaints that he accepted illegal donations and spent campaign money on races he never ran in 2010.

The allegations stem from Oxendine's 2010 campaign for governor, and in part, from Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports about what he did with about $750,000 in contributions after he lost the Republican primary that year.

A hearing has been set in the case for June 17 in Fulton County Superior Court.

Stefan Ritter, the executive secretary of the commission, said the court doesn’t yet have jurisdiction to take up the case because the commission hasn’t made a final determination in the case. In court filings, Oxendine’s lawyer, Douglas Chalmers, disagrees.

If Oxendine is successful, the case could lead to more politicians asking the courts to interpret state ethics laws, rather than leaving it up to the commission. The ruling could also affect other ethics complaints awaiting commission action.

Chalmers filed the "petition for judicial review" on behalf of Oxendine after the commission essentially gave the former longtime state official a split decision in a case that began about seven years ago but was revived last fall after an AJC report.

The commission dismissed complaints that Oxendine took 19 contributions that were over the legal limit during his 2010 race, citing the state’s statute of limitations on such donations.

But it 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 after losing the primary.

Oxendine led the polls throughout much of the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary race before fading to fourth. He collected about $750,000 in contributions for the runoff and general elections.

The former insurance commissioner 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 on Oxendine's handling of his leftover money, 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.

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.

Under state law, candidates can’t use campaign contributions for personal enrichment or use.

The new allegations filed in September were tacked onto another Oxendine campaign finance case that dates to 2009.

Chalmers declined to comment on the case, other than to say: “Our briefs speak for themselves. We are looking forward to our day in court.”

In the briefs, as he did during commission hearings, Chalmers said ethics staffers have misread the law and that Oxendine has had to spend the past seven years defending himself against legally groundless allegations.

“The damage that this case has caused to (Oxendine’s) private law practice, to his business development prospects, is incalculable but undeniable,” the briefs said.

While the original Oxendine case has been going on for years, Chalmers only became his attorney last year. Oxendine’s campaign disclosure report in January showed he had paid or owed Chalmers about $60,000 by the end of 2015. That was before he took the commission to court over its findings.

While Chalmers said at least one other politician facing ethics charges has asked for judicial review in the past, William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs said he’s not heard of someone taking an ongoing case to court in the six years he’s been following the commission.

“I think it’s unusual,” Perry said. “I can understand the points Mr. Chalmers is making. The law is full of loopholes.

“At the end of the day, any reasonable person would say what John Oxendine has done with his campaign funds is wrong and unethical Oxendine and Chalmers may win a legal argument, but it’s an injustice. Clearly what he did with campaign funds shouldn’t be allowed.”

Ritter said the case may wind up before the Georgia Court of Appeals. That means Oxendine could be fighting the charges for another year or more.