Bill wins final approval to make it easier for Georgia ethics panel to make cases

September 24, 2020 Atlanta - Commission members (clockwise from left) James Kreyenbuhl, commission vice chair, Robert Watts, and David Emadi, executive secretary, talk during a recess at an ethics commission meeting on Thursday, September 24, 2020. No representative of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' mayoral campaign appeared at a state ethics commission hearing on Thursday that was supposed to determine if the commission should take charges that her 2017 mayoral bid violated campaign finance laws to an administrative judge. Nevertheless, the commission Ñ whose formal name is the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission Ñ agreed to continue the case until its next meeting on Dec. 10. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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September 24, 2020 Atlanta - Commission members (clockwise from left) James Kreyenbuhl, commission vice chair, Robert Watts, and David Emadi, executive secretary, talk during a recess at an ethics commission meeting on Thursday, September 24, 2020. No representative of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' mayoral campaign appeared at a state ethics commission hearing on Thursday that was supposed to determine if the commission should take charges that her 2017 mayoral bid violated campaign finance laws to an administrative judge. Nevertheless, the commission Ñ whose formal name is the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission Ñ agreed to continue the case until its next meeting on Dec. 10. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

It took a few years, but the General Assembly gave final approval this week to legislation aimed at giving state ethics investigators more tools to make cases and clarifying that some uses for leftover campaign money are illegal.

The measure, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, addresses issues raised by two ongoing high-profile cases that have made headlines in recent years.

One involves former longtime Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a onetime GOP 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 their leftover campaign money for personal use.

Under Senate Bill 120, which the Efstration measure was amended into, the commission would:

  • Have more time to make cases without the statute of limitations running out.
  • Make ex-candidates hold onto campaign bank records longer.
  • Clarify that candidates could not use campaign contributions to make personal loans to themselves or invest in their companies.
  • Mandate what candidates could do with money raised for primary or general election runoffs when they fail to make the runoffs.
  • Increase what information candidates for partisan statewide offices — such as the governor — have to include in the personal financial disclosures they have to file.

The bill stalled on the last night of last year’s legislative session because of chamber infighting over provisions the Senate wanted to add to the bill.

After the measure won passage without discussion Tuesday in the Senate on a vote of 38-15, David Emadi, executive secretary of the Georgia ethics commission, said, “I want to thank Republicans and Democrats in the House for uniting and passing this bipartisan bill in overwhelming fashion last year, and I also want to thank Republicans in the state Senate as well as the six Senate Democrats who crossed over and voted to strengthen our ethics and campaign finance laws.

“This bill, which we have worked vigorously with the Legislature on for the past two years, will strengthen our ethics and campaign finance laws in the state, and for that, all Georgians will ultimately benefit.”

While the bill doesn’t name the two former 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 that 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, until this January.

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 that he kept and spent money raised for Republican runoff and general election campaigns that he never ran because he lost in the GOP primary.

The commission then filed new charges against him.

Oxendine amended his reports in October 2015 to show more than $700,000 left over, including $237,000 in loans to his law firm, and the commission filed new charges.

The commission dismissed much of the new complaint against him that December after his lawyer, Doug 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 use contributions for things such as houses and cars for themselves.

Last fall, an administrative law judge ruled that the charges should be dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out on the case. The case was delayed, in part, because Oxendine fought the commission’s subpoena for bank records all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. Those bank records led to the charges alleging misuse of leftover campaign money.

In January the ethics commission decided to reject the judge’s ruling and move ahead with its case against Oxendine. He has since asked a superior court judge to toss the charges.

In the other incident, the ethics commission in 2020 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.

Emadi initially dismissed 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.

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 spent 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.

Current 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.