Racial discrimination settlement cost Georgia GOP more than $500,000

Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Watson said payments in March settled a lawsuit against the party that cost it more than $500,000.

Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Watson said payments in March settled a lawsuit against the party that cost it more than $500,000.

The Georgia Republican Party paid more than $500,000 to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a former staffer.

The state GOP confirmed last fall that it had settled the lawsuit, but most of the payments have showed up in the party's campaign disclosure filings since then.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the filings found $225,000 was paid to Qiana Keith, while at least $300,000 went to her attorneys.

State Republican Party Chairman John Watson said payments in March settled the lawsuit. But the filings also show the party deferred an additional $137,000 bill from its lawyers in the case, although it lists the expenses as “disputed.”

All told, the party has spent roughly $1 million on legal fees involving Keith, a former GOP staffer who claimed her co-workers had referred to her with a racial slur and humiliated her. That sum includes disputed litigation fees. Keith's attorneys didn't immediately comment on the settlement.

That lawsuit targeted former GOP Chairman John Padgett, who last summer chose not to seek another term as the state party’s leader. Watson won a tight vote to replace Padgett in part because of a pledge to close the legal case and rev up the party’s fundraising.

In a note last year to supporters, Watson wrote that the “entirety of this debt was inherited from the past administration and is now being reported after reaching finality on a number of unknown debt amounts.”

Keith’s lawsuit claimed she was fired after complaining to her superiors about her co-workers’ behavior, and she sought damages and lost wages under the federal Civil Rights Act. She said her colleagues gossiped about her 2002 felony conviction in Montana, which she said the party was aware of when it hired her in 2013.

The Georgia GOP's attorney, Anne Lewis, said in 2014 that Keith was fired for "consistently poor job performance." But the party's efforts to block the case in court were stymied by a March 2017 ruling by a federal judge that allowed a key part of the racial discrimination lawsuit to move forward.

The lawsuit contributed to the state GOP's troubles attracting donors amid mounting legal bills. Watson took over a party in June that was deep in debt despite the fact that Republicans dominate state politics and Georgia GOP politicians have no problem raising big money for their own campaigns.

The party’s latest filings show it is chipping away at the debt but hasn’t erased it, despite taking in $833,000 over the past two months.

The party got big checks from traditional donors, such as Georgia Power ($10,000), Flowers Foods ($25,000), and the Republican National Committee ($41,000), along with $52,000 from Duluth gem and jewelry company Bellagem and $50,000 from Athens disaster recovery response company MLU Services.

Still, according to the reports, the party ended March 31 with $376,000 in the bank and owing $512,000 for various services. Much of the debt involves legal bills.

It’s a far cry from the party’s financial position at the beginning of the decade, when it banked huge amounts of money and had the cash to power its slate of candidates.

In 2010 it had about $2 million in the bank, but its fortunes began to decline, reaching a nadir of just $11,403 in December 2015. The party’s finances were a major issue in last year’s chairman’s election, and Watson has vowed to shore up the GOP’s books.

By contrast, the state Democratic Party, which is the minority party in both chambers of the state Legislature and holds no statewide office, reported about $447,000 in the bank as of March 31.