Judge rules for Oxendine in decade-long battle with Georgia ethics commission

A state administrative law judge sided with former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine in deciding that ethics investigators took too long to go after him on allegations that he illegally used campaign funds for a down payment on a house, luxury cars and other personal expenses. John Spink jspink@ajc.com
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A state administrative law judge sided with former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine in deciding that ethics investigators took too long to go after him on allegations that he illegally used campaign funds for a down payment on a house, luxury cars and other personal expenses. John Spink jspink@ajc.com

State says it will appeal the ruling

A state administrative law judge decided that it’s taken too long for ethics investigators to go after former Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine on allegations that he illegally used campaign funds for a down payment on a house, luxury cars and other personal expenses.

Judge Ronit Walker also ruled that the state ethics commission couldn’t go after Oxendine for accepting $120,000 in bundled contributions from two Georgia insurance companies in 2008 when he was running for the Republican nomination for governor.

“No matter how patently obvious it may be that corporations are ‘affiliated,’ the legislature has chosen only to penalize the donor,” Walker wrote in dismissing the illegal contributions case against Oxendine, citing state law.

Oxendine’s lawyer, Douglas Chalmers, said they were pleased with the ruling.

The commission, which has been pursuing complaints against the former GOP front-runner for governor since his campaign was accused of collecting 10 times the legal limit from the insurance companies, said it will appeal the rulings.

“We strongly disagree with the decision by the administrative law judge and will pursue all appellate options available to us to ensure that Mr. Oxendine is ultimately held accountable,” said David Emadi, executive secretary of the ethics commission. “We do not consider this case concluded.”

Following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, a complaint was filed against Oxendine’s gubernatorial campaign over the bundled contributions.

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 another AJC investigation 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 2010 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.

Following the AJC report, ethics commission staffers filed an amended complaint in 2015, accusing him of improperly spending more than $208,000 raised for the runoff and general elections and accepting more than the legal limit in contributions from 19 donors.

The commission dismissed many of the new charges that December, after 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 collect contributions for a campaign and then use the money 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. Chalmers called the commission’s case “a lot of speculation.”

Oxendine has spent most of the money that was left over in the 2010 gubernatorial account without returning it to donors or donating it to charity, two of the ways the law says he could dispose of the money. He recently filed an end-of-2020 report showing $254,000 remained. He has spent about $200,000 of the leftover money with Chalmers’ firm on legal fees and expenses.

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