Georgia Appeals Court says judge can rule on Abrams ethics subpoenas

The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled that a Fulton County judge has the power to decide whether to enforce subpoenas filed by the state ethics commission seeking documents from Democrat Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled that a Fulton County judge has the power to decide whether to enforce subpoenas filed by the state ethics commission seeking documents from Democrat Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

In a case likely to bleed into next year’s election season, the Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled that a Fulton County judge has the power to decide whether to enforce subpoenas filed by the state ethics commission seeking documents from Democrat Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick said last year that she didn’t have jurisdiction to enforce subpoenas from the commission, which is looking into whether Abrams’ campaign illegally coordinated its efforts with nonprofits supporting her bid for governor. Georgia law prohibits independent groups from coordinating with candidates.

Abrams ultimately lost the election to Republican Brian Kemp. A rematch between the two is expected in 2022, and her camp has noted that the ethics commission’s executive secretary, David Emadi, was a Kemp donor in 2018.

In a statement Friday, Emadi said, “We hope that the Abrams campaign and The New Georgia Project will now comply with the subpoena, providing evidence to the commission which will allow us to ultimately conclude our investigation and thereby provide Georgia citizens with full transparency regarding the 2018 gubernatorial election.”

Attorneys for the Abrams campaign said during a 2020 hearing that they had already turned over 4,000 documents showing checks, wire transfers, bank records and campaign transactions.

They said the ethics commission lacks evidence of wrongdoing, and now it’s trying to dig into personal emails and other documents unrelated to the allegations.

An attorney for the ethics commission said in court that he needed an explanation for spending by the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group that Abrams founded, and an affiliated organization, the New Georgia Project Action Fund.

The organizations hired canvassers, sought donations and supported Abrams in mass emails, but neither the groups nor the campaign reported those items in spending disclosures, Assistant Attorney General Christian Fuller said in court in 2020.

But those activities and emails don’t show direct communications that would justify an allegation of illegal campaign coordination, an attorney for the Abrams campaign said.

For the ethics commission to move the case beyond its preliminary investigation, it would have to make a finding that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that campaign finance laws were violated.

Abrams’ campaign has said the commission tried to subpoena more documents because evidence showing improper activities doesn’t exist.

The subpoenas were sought by Emadi in one of his first actions in 2019 when he became the director of the commission, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

The agency requested all correspondence between the campaign and a number of groups that registered and mobilized voters, many with a focus on energizing minorities.

Even if the subpoenas are enforced and the case continued, it could be 2022 before there is a final decision by the commission.

Meanwhile, the commission will have an initial hearing next month on another case against Abrams alleging that she began raising and spending campaign money to run for governor before she formally filed paperwork declaring her intention to raise money in the race, and that she used campaign money for prohibited uses, such as membership dues to the Commerce Club in Atlanta and the Delta Sky Club.

A spot check of campaign disclosures by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that campaign money has been used for Commerce Club dues more than 120 times combined by officials from both parties over the past decade, including by some politicians who paid membership dues with campaign money as they were leaving office.

In its filings, the commission says such dues are not an “ordinary and necessary expense” of running for office, and Emadi said the commission has fined politicians in the past for using campaign money for club dues.

Abrams’ campaign lawyers also said it is not uncommon or illegal for campaigns to expend money before filing their declaration to raise money for office.