Capitol Recap: Georgia congressman under an ethics microscope

The U.S. House Ethics Committee is reviewing a case to determine whether U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, violated congressional rules or federal laws when a campaign committee picked up many of his expenses for golf and fueling his cars. A House report also raises questions about holiday parties for his staff that were paid for through a taxpayer-funded account. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL
The U.S. House Ethics Committee is reviewing a case to determine whether U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, violated congressional rules or federal laws when a campaign committee picked up many of his expenses for golf and fueling his cars. A House report also raises questions about holiday parties for his staff that were paid for through a taxpayer-funded account. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

A roundup of news from politics and government

Probe finds problems with Bishop’s expenses

A U.S. House investigation has found misuse of campaign money raised for U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop as well as a taxpayer-funded account that pays for management of the congressman’s offices in Washington and the 2nd Congressional District in southwest Georgia.

The House Ethics Committee is now reviewing the case to determine whether Bishop violated congressional rules or federal laws.

The Democrat from Albany has since paid back some of the expenses, and his attorney says Bishop has put in place new policies and named a new campaign treasurer.

Here’s a breakdown of the findings in the House report:

  • From May 2014 through this past September, the Sanford Bishop for Congress campaign committee paid $49,564.08 for the lawmaker’s monthly membership fees at the Green Island Country Club in Columbus and the Stonebridge Golf and Country Club in Albany, as well as guest green charges, meals and other charges. Those expenses are separate from legitimate campaign expenditures for annual golf fundraisers that Bishop held at these facilities.
  • Campaign finance records filed with the Federal Election Commission show that from October 2017 to June 2019 the campaign committee paid at least $10,049.97 in charges to fuel cars used by Bishop; his wife, Vivian Creighton Bishop, the elected clerk of municipal court in Columbus; and, on at least one occasion, his daughter. Much of that money paid for a gas card the Bishops used to fill up their tanks. The report says the Bishops didn’t keep mileage logs to justify how much of their driving was related to campaign or political activities.

According to the report, Sanford Bishop told the Office of Congressional Ethics — an independent, nonpartisan board charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct — that “he is engaged in political discussions wherever he travels, meaning that in his view, a trip to the grocery store, Walmart, golf course, or other venue that may appear personal on its face, almost always entails some political component.”

  • From 2015 through 2018, Bishop used his member’s representational allowance — a taxpayer-funded account that covers the operation of his offices in Washington and in his district — to pay $16,087.87 for annual holiday parties that were not widely advertised although he told investigators that constituents were welcome. The OCE determined that Bishop and his wife asked vendors to label invoices for the parties as “constituent meeting,” although the events included dinner, live entertainment and dancing.

Bishop recently paid back the entire amount.

If the Ethics Committee determines that Bishop violated either congressional regulations or federal law, he faces fines, censure or, if the case is found to be severe, expulsion. The committee could also refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice or the FEC.

The panel recently voted to fine U.S. Rep. David Schweikert $50,000 and reprimand him on the House floor after it found that the Arizona Republican had, in part, used campaign funding for personal use and, over a six-year period, misused his member’s representational allowance.

Legislators could face another round under the Gold Dome

2020 has been a long year for everybody, and it could soon get longer for Georgia legislators.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced this past week that he intends to call a special session of the General Assembly.

Kemp, who would have control over the session’s agenda, said he wants the lawmakers to fix legislation meant to give a tax break to South Georgians devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018. But speculation quickly followed that the governor may have more in mind after he announced that “such special session may also be timely to address other budgetary and oversight issues.”

Some seized on the idea that “oversight” could mean that Kemp plans to use the session to gain ammunition in his feud with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over response to the coronavirus pandemic and could even push for the state to supplant the city’s control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Bottoms recently pushed to protect the city’s hold on Hartsfield-Jackson in her role as head of the committee drafting the national Democratic Party’s platform for the presidential election. It includes a measure opposing “partisan power grabs” of public infrastructure projects, such as airports.

But Kemp also could be leaving the door open to more work on the state’s budget, after lawmakers cut $2.2 billion in spending — including $950 million from k-12 schools — because of the toll the COVID-19 recession has taken on state revenue. If state revenue continues to fall short, that could require more adjustments. Or, if Congress comes through with federal aid to states — as state House Speaker David Ralston called for this past week in a letter to Georgia’s U.S. senators — the Legislature could even restore some spending.

Georgia's secretary of state's office has set up a website to hire poll workers after many quit because of concerns about the coronavirus. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Georgia's secretary of state's office has set up a website to hire poll workers after many quit because of concerns about the coronavirus. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM



Looking for work? Election officials are hiring

Georgia just posted a “Help Wanted” sign for poll workers.

No experience is necessary for the job, which is open to anybody 16 or over.

The secretary of state’s office set up a website to take applications.

It’s a matter of supply being needed to meet demand to replace poll workers who quit during the coronavirus pandemic. Heightening the need is November’s presidential election, when 5 million voters are expected to cast ballots.

How’s the pay? Generally $60 to $140 per day, including over 13 hours of work on Election Day. Some counties in metro areas pay more, as they did in the primary election.

New poll workers will be required to be either residents or employees of the county where they want to serve. They also will have to go through training.

To apply, go to Applicants’ names will be forwarded to county election offices, which will make the hires.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has also launched a poll worker recruitment program at First on its wish list is “younger Georgians who are at lower risk of COVID-19 complications.”

Raffensperger, DeKalb squabble over absentee ballot plan

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has asked DeKalb County to reconsider a plan to send absentee ballot requests to both active and inactive voters ahead of November’s presidential election, saying it “increases the possibility of voter fraud.”

In a press release, Raffensperger said inactive voter lists often include inaccurate or obsolete mailing addresses, and that could allow some individuals to use “the unclaimed requests to obtain absentee ballots fraudulently in the name of people who have moved elsewhere.”

Sam Tillman, the chairman of DeKalb’s elections board, said he hadn’t seen Raffensperger’s statement, but he appeared unmoved.

“An inactive voter has every right that an active voter has to vote,” Tillman said.

In Georgia, voters are considered inactive after having no contact with elections officials for five years, either through voting or by updating their driver’s license information. Voters can also be marked inactive if mail sent by elections officials has been returned as nondeliverable. Inactive voters are still registered and can cast ballots. They cannot be removed from voter rolls until two years after the five-year no-contact period ends.

As of July 21, there were 526,793 active and 28,993 inactive voters in DeKalb, according to the state’s list of registered voters.

Absentee-by-mail voting has been a hot topic of late, with President Donald Trump declaring it to be ripe for fraud, even though he himself plans to vote absentee this year. Experts also say Trump’s assertions aren’t true. Tillman said it’s never been a problem in DeKalb.

“Unless the secretary of state is issuing an order mandating that we not do this, or telling us not to do this, then as far as I’m concerned, nothing is changed,” he said.

Cobb to say ‘no’ to request to send out absentee ballot applications

The Cobb County Commission is expected to reject a funding request from the county election board to send absentee-ballot applications to all registered voters in advance of November’s presidential election, according to The Marietta Daily Journal.

Bob Ott, one of four Republicans on the five-member commission, said Commission Chairman Mike Boyce made the decision during a planning session leading up to Monday’s commission meeting.

“There were three hard no votes, so he pulled it from the agenda,” Ott told the paper.

The mailings would have cost about $250,000.

Cheers: Booze can now be delivered to your door

Liquor could soon become quicker — in finding its way to your door — thanks to Georgia’s new law allowing stores and at least some restaurants to deliver alcoholic beverages to homes.

The new law, House Bill 879, went through the germination process before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, but the changes Georgians have made in their shopping habits in response to COVID-19 certainly didn’t hurt the legislation’s prospects for final passage.

Under the new law — which Gov. Brian Kemp signed this past week — beer or wine can’t just be plopped on the doorstep like Amazon deliveries. The delivery person would have to check IDs to make sure the buyer is old enough to purchase alcohol.

Municipalities also can opt out of allowing deliveries, and whether restaurants could deliver would depend on local laws that govern their business.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.

— Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Democratic nominee in the 7th Congressional District, took some time away from her campaign to endorse other aspiring officeholders in Tuesday’s runoffs. She threw her backing behind Keybo Taylor, a candidate for Gwinnett County sheriff; Nicole Love Hendrickson, who is running for the Gwinnett County Commission chairmanship; and Nikki Merritt, a hopeful in state Senate District 3.

Bourdeaux also drew an endorsement, from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC.

— U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, two of the 21 candidates running in the state’s special election for Loeffler’s seat in November, are putting aside their differences to serve as honorary hosts at an Aug. 18 fundraiser for Rich McCormick, the Republican nominee in the 7th Congressional District. Also listed as honorary hosts are Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Sen. David Perdue and the rest of the Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation.