Ethics panel to pursue case against former Georgia Senate GOP leader

Georgia's state ethics commission is pursuing a case against former state Sen. Chip Rogers, alleging that he used leftover campaign money for thousands of dollars in personal expenses. He's accused of spending the money at Six Flags, Dillard’s Department Store, the PGA Super Store, a luxury car dealership in Florida and the Shaky Boots Music Festival.
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Georgia's state ethics commission is pursuing a case against former state Sen. Chip Rogers, alleging that he used leftover campaign money for thousands of dollars in personal expenses. He's accused of spending the money at Six Flags, Dillard’s Department Store, the PGA Super Store, a luxury car dealership in Florida and the Shaky Boots Music Festival.

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

The state ethics commission decided Thursday to move ahead with a case against a former Georgia Senate majority leader accused of illegally using campaign money to repay himself more than he actually loaned his campaign.

Commission staff said former Sen. Chip Rogers used leftover campaign money once he was out of the General Assembly for thousands of dollars in personal expenses, spending money at Six Flags, Dillard’s Department Store, the PGA Super Store, a luxury car dealership in Florida and the Shaky Boots Music Festival.

Under state law, politicians can only use campaign money to win and maintain their office. Once they leave office, they can dispose of that money by donating it to charity, returning it to donors or repaying campaign debt and expenses

The commission also found probable cause to conclude Rogers, a Republican from Woodstock, didn’t file several mandatory campaign reports or adequately disclose how he spent some of the money he raised. The next step is a formal hearing on the charges, which could eventually lead to a hefty fine.

David Emadi, executive secretary of the commission, applauded the vote.

“These blatant violations of campaign finance laws and highly questionable uses of campaign funds are matters that commission staff take very seriously,” he said. “Following the ruling in our favor today by the commission, we look forward to further prosecuting this matter and getting to the bottom of exactly what Mr. Rogers was doing with this money and why.”

Rogers’ lawyer, Doug Chalmers, said the former senator’s repayments to himself did not exceed the value of his loans, that the statute of limitations on at least some of the allegations had run out and that records were no longer available to prove or disprove the case.

“These cases should have been dismissed years ago, they should be dismissed today,” he told the commission.

By the time Rogers left the Senate in 2012, he was one of the most powerful members of the General Assembly. He left to take a $150,000-a-year state job — as an executive producer — at Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Like all legislative leaders, most of his campaign money came from lobbyists, special-interest business associations and individuals interested in legislation or state funding.

When he left office he still had about $234,000 in his campaign account, according to his disclosures.

Complaints were first made against Rogers in 2015 after he filed a series of campaign disclosure report amendments that, among other things, showed his campaign owed him thousands of dollars more than he’d earlier stated.

By increasing the listed debt, he could pay himself back more of the leftover money, commission officials said.

Rachel Goldberg, the commission’s staff attorney handling the case, said there was no explanation for the increase.

“There was no way to tell if he loaned his campaign money,” she said.

Candidates frequently loan themselves money to run for office. It is legal for them to use donations they receive to repay those loans. It is not legal for candidates to pay back more than they loaned their campaign, which Chalmers said Rogers didn’t do.

Chalmers said Rogers looked through his records and found that there were expenses he incurred — such as a substantial amount of mileage and phone costs when he was in office — for which he’d never been reimbursed.

From 2012 on he reported paying himself back more than $50,000 in loan repayments and for mileage, according to disclosures.

Commission staff told the panel it used bank records to find that Rogers was actually spending campaign money on personal expenses, including during trips to London and Italy.

“I have an opinion that the loan was a cover-up,” said Jake Evans, the commission’s chairman.

Goldberg said there were no loan agreements to show why the campaign suddenly owed Rogers more than he’d originally reported. But Chalmers said that is one of the problems with the case. Records for some of the original campaign reports and bank records weren’t available anymore because Rogers first ran for the Senate in 2004.

“It’s virtually impossible to defend or prove the case,” he said.

But Goldberg said, “I don’t know anyone who forgets they loaned themselves $30,000.”