Bill aims to strengthen Georgia ethics laws after Oxendine, Balfour cases

Former state Sen. Don Balfour, right, with attorney Robert Highsmith, in 2012 heads down the steps to the Senate mezzanine meeting room for an ethics hearing. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Former state Sen. Don Balfour, right, with attorney Robert Highsmith, in 2012 heads down the steps to the Senate mezzanine meeting room for an ethics hearing. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Legislation filed Monday would give state investigators more tools to make ethics cases and makes clear that some uses for leftover campaign money are illegal.

House Bill 333, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, addresses issues raised by two ongoing, high-profile cases that have made headlines the past few years.

One involves former longtime Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a onetime Republican front-runner in the 2010 gubernatorial race who has been fighting ethics charges for more than a decade.

The other involves former Republican state Senate leader Dan Balfour, who left office in 2015 and didn’t report what he did with $630,000 in leftover campaign money. By law, former politicians aren’t allowed to keep the money for personal use.

Efstration said he has Republican and Democratic support for the measure. It was co-sponsored by Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.

“We think it’s important we bring a bill with bipartisan support so the (ethics) commission can do its job efficiently,” Efstration said.

Ethics commission staffers tried to get some of the provisions in the measure through the General Assembly last session. The legislation stalled, however, when Republicans tried to tack on a provision legalizing “leadership funds,” which allow chamber leaders to raise unlimited amounts of money, usually from lobbyists and business interests they represent.

Under Efstration’s bill, he said, the commission would have more time to make cases without the statute of limitations running out, would make ex-candidates hold onto campaign bank records longer, would clarify that candidates could not use campaign contributions to make personal loans to themselves or invest in their companies, and would mandate that candidates who collect money for primary and general election runoffs and then fail to make the runoffs must return contributions to donors.

While the bill doesn’t name the two former Republican politicians, some of the issues raised by the legislation were brought up in their cases.

Following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, a complaint was filed against Oxendine’s gubernatorial campaign in 2009 alleging he accepted $120,000 in bundled contributions from two Georgia insurance companies.

The 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, in part because of staff turnover and seemingly endless drama at the agency. 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 never returned more than $500,000 worth of leftover contributions from his gubernatorial bid and kept and 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.

Following the AJC report, ethics commission staffers filed an amended complaint in 2015, 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 new charges that December, after his lawyer, Douglas Chalmers, argued that the statute of limitations had run out on charges involving the 2010 campaign.

But the commission in 2019 moved ahead on allegations that Oxendine spent campaign donations on luxury car leases, child care bills, an athletic club membership and a down payment on a $965,000 house. Under Georgia law, a candidate can’t collect contributions for a campaign and then use the money for things such as houses and cars for themselves.

The commission also voted to move ahead with the complaint that he took the $120,000 — far above the legal limit — from the two Georgia insurance companies through affiliated political action committees.

Oxendine has characterized the case as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Chalmers called the commission’s case “a lot of speculation.”

The commission last year reopened what appeared to be a dead case against Balfour a week after the AJC reported it was being dismissed by the panel’s staff, despite the fact that the ex-Gwinnett County lawmaker hadn’t reported what happened to about $630,000 in leftover campaign money.

David Emadi, executive secretary of the commission, signed an order administratively dismissing the case because he said a loophole in campaign finance laws made it too late to investigate Balfour for not filing campaign disclosure reports. Those reports would have shown what happened to the leftover money, much of it collected from Statehouse lobbyists, associations and businesses with an interest in legislation.

Under state law, legislative candidates can raise and spend money to win or maintain their office. Once they leave office, leftover money can be returned to donors, or given to other campaigns or to nonprofits.

Former lawmakers must file campaign disclosure reports annually until all the money in their accounts is dispersed and they file termination reports. Balfour didn’t do that.

Chalmers, who is also Balfour’s lawyer, said the legislator’s campaign account was closed several years ago. State law limits how long campaign bank records must be maintained and sets a statute of limitations for the panel to make ethics cases.

Chalmers argued it’s too late to make a case against Balfour.

If passed, Efstration’s legislation wouldn’t directly impact either case because a new law can’t be retroactively applied, but it would set guidelines for how future cases are handled and rules for candidates going forward.

Ethics coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2009 that Republican Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s gubernatorial campaign accepted $120,000 in bundled contributions from two Georgia insurance companies. That led to an ongoing ethics complaint. Six years later, the AJC reported Oxendine filed disclosures saying his campaign account was empty, even though he had more than $700,000 in leftover donations in it, and he was accused of spending campaign donations on a home and cars, leading to more charges.

Last year, the AJC reported that former Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour had not disclosed what he did with $630,000 in leftover campaign money. An ethics complaint against him was initially dismissed, but the commission changed its mind after the AJC reported on the issue.

Ethics coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported on the cases of two officials involving campaign finance issues now addressed in new legislation.

Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine faces a complaint after a disclosure showed his campaign account was empty even though he had more than $700,000 in leftover donations.

Former Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour did not disclose what he did with $630,000 in leftover campaign money.