Georgia House backs campaign finance ethics measure

Judiciary Chairman Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, presents House Bill 333 in the House on Friday. The House approved the bill, which would help the state ethics commission in its investigations of alleged campaign violations. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Judiciary Chairman Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, presents House Bill 333 in the House on Friday. The House approved the bill, which would help the state ethics commission in its investigations of alleged campaign violations. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

The Georgia House passed legislation Friday aimed at giving state ethics investigators more tools to make cases and clarifying that some uses for leftover campaign money are illegal.

House Bill 333, sponsored by 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 Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a Republican frontrunner 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 the money for personal use.

“Ensuring there is transparency and oversight in our campaign finance law is a very important thing,” Efstration told colleagues before they passed his bill 164-0. “It helps ensure public trust in our government.”

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Under Efstration’s bill, he said, the commission would have more time to make cases without the statute of limitations running out, would make ex-candidates hold onto campaign bank records longer, would clarify that candidates could not use campaign contributions to make personal loans to themselves or invest in their companies, and would mandate what candidates could do with money raised for primary or general election runoffs when they fail to make the runoffs.

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.

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.

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 many of the charges 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.

The commission also voted to move ahead with the complaint that he took the $120,000 — far above the legal limit — from the two Georgia insurance companies through affiliated political action committees.

Oxendine has characterized the case as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The commission last year 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.

David Emadi, executive secretary of the commission, 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 dispersed 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.

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