Gov. Brian Kemp’s inaugural ball in January at State Farm Arena was a star-studded, tux-and-gown political affair. But, as was the case in 2019, his aides won’t say who paid for it.
Recently filed campaign reports provide a few clues.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution searched state ethics commission reports and found more than a dozen contributions — totaling over $426,000 — from political groups with interest in Capitol legislation and state funding.
From nursing home companies and cigarette makers to the car dealers and liquor distributor lobbies, Statehouse interests plowed big money into the event, which brought thousands of donors and elected officials to the downtown Atlanta arena.
That doesn’t include lobbyists and lobby groups who may have contributed to his reelection party but don’t necessarily file individual campaign reports.
It may also be only a fraction of the overall cost, which remains unclear. That’s because the governor’s advisers won’t tell the public who funded the ball, just as they did during his first inaugural.
Good government advocates say the lack of transparency could obscure conflicts of interest from executives, lobbyists and special-interest groups that have business at the state Capitol.
“Paying for a ball like that for a public official is one way of gaining influence,” said William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “It is a way to put yourself in a good light with that elected official.”
He added: “The fact that they are not disclosing that is very troubling.”
Gov. Nathan Deal, Kemp’s predecessor, disclosed through aides that his inaugural committee raised $1.4 million for the Gwinnett Center gala celebrating his 2014 reelection but wouldn’t say who contributed or how much they donated.
The recent shift toward secrecy is a break from a long-standing practice by most previous governors to let the public know who paid for the shindigs.
For instance, Gov. Sonny Perdue disclosed his committees raised about $2.5 million for his inaugural and transition committees after his 2002 win and documented six-figure gifts from corporations such as AT&T and BellSouth for his second-term bash.
But since 2014, governors have routed donations to their inaugural committees through nonprofits that don’t have to legally disclose donors.
The AJC still tracked about $426,000 in contributions by reviewing expenses reported in campaign filings of political action committees and special-interest advocacy groups. Some of the donors have contributed money to inaugural events for decades.
Beer and liquor wholesalers and distributors were among the biggest donors, giving about $56,000 in cash and beverages to the event.
Perry said that’s not surprising because liquor businesses “are some of the most regulated entities in the state.”
A political action committee funded by a Macon nursing home company contributed $50,000. A vast majority of nursing home patients have their stays at least partially funded by the state, and the rate of funding is reviewed by the governor and lawmakers each year.
The car dealers lobby, which has spent years fighting legislation to prevent the makers of electric vehicles from selling directly to consumers, gave $25,000. Cigarette maker Altria, which annually faces legislation to raise one of the country’s lowest state tobacco tax rates, reported giving $50,000.
Kemp’s leadership committee — a fund that allows the governor to collect unlimited donations from special interests — gave $100,000 to the inaugural fund. The political action committee for credit unions gave $50,000. The Realtors lobby gave $15,000.
Kemp’s inaugural account is only a fraction of what he’s raised overall since he was first elected governor in 2018. He collected more than $78 million for his reelection victory last year over Democrat Stacey Abrams, part of a record-breaking race for governor.
Even after his victory, the governor has continued to raise money to pay key aides and promote his political agenda.
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