The Georgia Campaign Finance Transparency Commission, formerly known as the state Ethics Commission before its Orwellian name change, awoke from its great slumber on Friday and rendered opinions on several longstanding cases. The current governor's five pending ethics complaints were not yet ready for presentation, but complaints against two of his former opponents received opinions from the panel. A man who wasn't a lobbyist when he took the House speaker to Europe, but decided he was when he returned, also had his day before the body.
Former Governor Roy Barnes was cleared for not filing lobbyist disclosure reports while representing a client in 2007. He had registered as a lobbyist as an abundance of caution, but later received an advisory opinion from the commission stating he did not have to register as a lobbyist based on the activities he was conducting. His defense consisted of asking why he had to file lobbyist disclosure reports with the commission if he had been advised by the commission that he didn't have to register as a lobbyist. Apparently common sense prevailed.
Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine was not as fortunate. The commission voted unanimously to move his case to an administrative law judge for disposition. Oxendine has a 30-day period where he can agree to a settlement in the case.
His troubles stem from 2009 when his campaign received $120,000 in donations from 10 political action committees set up by the State Mutual Insurance Company and its affiliate Admiral Life. All these PACs, set up in Alabama and thus not under jurisdiction of Georgia campaign laws, had the same address. Each check was written for the same amount.
Despite the fact that these contributions accounted for roughly one quarter of Oxendine's total campaign donations at the time, the campaign claims that they did not notice the similarities in the checks and made no effort to learn who was behind them. The commission apparently decided that this defense did not pass the smell test, with Commission Chairman Attorney Elisabeth Murray Obertein telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Same address, same amounts, checks drawn from the same bank, all signed by the same person The campaign should have recognized they came from affiliated PACs."
Oxendine delayed a ruling from the commission during the 2010 campaign, citing that the charges were political in nature and thus were designed to shed negative light on his campaign close to the election. He successfully won that reprieve, but may have let the two insurance companies off the hook for their culpability in the process.
The Rome News-Tribune is reporting that the State Mutual Insurance Company and the Admiral Life Insurance Company are no longer involved in the Oxendine case, as the statute of Limitations has expired. A spokesperson for the companies told the paper that the cases were separated by the Ethics Commission and they had their case adjudicated in Fulton County Superior Court.
A case against the lobbyist who took House Speaker David Ralston and his family on a $17,000 Thanksgiving trip to Europe to ride trains was settled Friday. Chris Brady agreed to pay a $300 fine for not registering as a lobbyist prior to the expenditure and for not reporting the expenditures in a timely manner.
The five remaining ethics charges against Governor Nathan Deal remain pending. The Commission's former executive secretary and her former deputy, the two highest ranking employees of the commission, each filed suit against the commission and its former Chairman Patrick Millsaps last week, citing wrongful termination. Secretary Stacey Kalberman's salary was cut 30 percent and Secretary Sherry Streicker's position was eliminated. Kalberman claims she was told she had resigned when she protested the cuts.
This coincidentally happened when the two were seeking the signature of Millsaps on subpoenas to secure records from Governor Deal. The two have also received offers of assistance from the FBI for outside investigative assistance in the matter.
The commission, now with a new chairman and executive secretary, had hoped to have the governor's cases ready to present last Friday. Instead, they indicated that they will likely present the cases for discussion during the commission's July meeting.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.