Judge rules ethics panel can get bank records of former Abrams group

JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A superior court judge ruled a voting registration group founded by Stacey Abrams should turn over bank records to state ethics investigators who say it advocated for her election as governor in 2018 without registering as a campaign committee or filing disclosures showing how much it raised or spent.

The New Georgia Project is no longer Abrams’ organization, but it is one of several targeted by David Emadi, executive secretary of the state ethics commission, who is looking into whether groups were part of an effort to help the Democratic nominee win the governor’s race in 2018.

The groups have responded by noting Emadi contributed to the campaign of Abrams’ rival, Brian Kemp, who narrowly beat the Democrat in 2018. Kemp and Abrams are expected to face off again in 2022, and the ethics probe could last well into 2021 or even 2022.

Abrams and groups she founded and helped fund were credited with helping Democrat Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump in the November election and two Democrats win U.S. Senate seats last week. In a few years she has become the face of the Democratic Party in Georgia and a target of Republicans.

Under Georgia law, organizations that collect and spend money to promote candidates and issues are required to register committees with the state and file regular reports disclosing what they raised and spent. They are also not allowed to coordinate their efforts with a candidate.

The ethics commission alleges the New Georgia Project and the New Georgia Project Action Fund solicited contributions and made expenditures to promote several candidates and causes in 2018, including Abrams.

“These expenditures included, but were not limited to, canvassing activities, literature expressly advocating for the election of candidates, and operating field offices where these electioneering activities were coordinated,” according to evidence cited in Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Warren Davis’ order.

New Georgia lawyers moved to quash a subpoena asking for bank records from the group, a motion Davis denied late last week. New Georgia said it will appeal the ruling.

“This is another continuation of a baseless partisan attack on a grassroots organization,” said Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project. “They aren’t interested in ethics in this state. There is nothing ethical about this partisan inquiry, and they should be ashamed.”

Emadi, who started investigating the groups shortly after taking the job in 2019, said, “A subpoena was lawfully issued to investigate potentially illegal election activities by the New Georgia Project.

“First, the commission unanimously ordered they comply with the subpoena. Now, months later after having refused to do so, a superior court judge has ordered them to do the same.

“We look forward to their eventual compliance with the law, whenever that may finally occur, so that a complete and transparent investigation can fully take place into these activities.”

Last summer, a group backing Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial bid was fined $50,000 by the state ethics commission for failing to report what it spent to help her win the Democratic primary.

Gente4Abrams (People for Abrams) spent $240,000 for canvassing, social media posts, and print and radio advertising to help Abrams win the primary, but the group didn’t report what it spent or where it got the money to pay for those efforts, the commission said.

The group later registered with the state and reported spending about $685,000 more to help the Democrat’s general election campaign against Kemp.

Abrams narrowly lost the 2018 general election to Kemp in the most expensive gubernatorial contest in Georgia history.

Emadi angered Abrams’ backers shortly after he took office in April 2019 by saying he would subpoena her campaign records and those of groups that supported her.

The commission sought all correspondence between the campaign and a number of groups that registered and mobilized voters, many with a focus on energizing minority voters.

They included the voting rights group Abrams helped launch after her 2018 defeat and a nonprofit co-founded by recently elected U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the head of the state Democratic Party.

Emadi revealed that investigators intend to present evidence the Abrams campaign accepted donations from four groups that exceeded maximum contribution limits for a statewide campaign. Abrams’ attorney has denied the claim, and her campaign manager said the commission has failed to prove any wrongdoing.

Abrams’ supporters have pointed to Emadi’s past ties to the Republican Party to accuse him of bias. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in March 2019 that he is a former officer in the Douglas County GOP and donated $600 to Kemp’s campaign.

In Other News