Ethics agency investigating statewide candidate’s ‘suspicious’ finance report

Georgia’s ethics commission is investigating the campaign finance figures filed by a Democratic candidate for secretary of state after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on his pattern of questionable disclosures.

David Emadi, the executive director of the agency, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, said Thursday that it would investigate the “unusual amounts of small-dollar donations” reported by Manswell Peterson, a military veteran and author who is running for the statewide office.

Peterson, a long-shot candidate for the job, reported raising nearly $319,000 for his 2022 bid. His report included only two itemized contributions, consisting of $850 in total. The other $318,000 listed on his form is credited to small-dollar donors who gave $100 or less and aren’t required by state law to be itemized.

His expenses amounted to only about $600, and he didn’t report loaning himself any cash.

Peterson told the AJC on Wednesday that there was no typo in the report. He claimed the bulk of his donors gave him contributions below $100 at different events in Georgia. He said he also raised significant campaign cash through online appeals.

“I was hoping to get big donors, but when you don’t get a lot of press, we had to get it through social media,” he said. “It’s shocking to us, too. But I’m a veteran, I’m an established author. I’m not some no-name person.”

Peterson doesn’t boast a huge following on social media. And even raising a few thousand dollars in small-dollar contributions is a heavy lift for the best-known candidates. For comparison, Stacey Abrams raised a fraction of that sum from small-dollar donors at this stage in her 2018 bid for governor.

To amass $318,000 in unitemized contributions, Peterson would have needed at least 3,200 donors who each gave $99. If each gave $50, he would have needed 6,360 donors.

“That would seem improbable this early in a primary — during a pandemic — when many events are sparsely attended,” said Sarah Riggs Amico, a Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor and the U.S. Senate during the past two election cycles.

“I may be new to politics, but I’ve been good at math for a long time,” Amico added. “The math in his report is highly suspicious.”

It raised suspicions with Emadi, too. He said the agency was particularly skeptical of the “lack of named donors” on the report.

“At this time, we will be issuing a notice of inspection of the campaign’s record to determine the propriety of the contributions,” Emadi said.