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ADA agrees to fine for political spending, but AHA may fight
By JIM WALLS
Catching up with the State Ethics Commission:
The Atlanta Development Authority agreed last week to pay a $1,000 fine for using public resources to promote passage of a 2008 ballot question, but the city’s public housing agency disputes a related complaint.
Also at last Thursday’s meeting, the commission backed down from requiring more financial reporting on political spending by so-called independent committees. The decision demonstrated yet again the limits imposed last year on the ethics panel’s powers.
The Development Authority settled a 2-year-old complaint with a consent order acknowledging it had used its staff, databases and newsletter to promote passage of Amendment 2 in 2008. The constitutional amendment, approved by voters statewide, reauthorized the use of school property taxes to fund public improvements that are not related to education.
Georgia law prohibits cash or in-kind spending by government agencies for political purposes.
Randy Evans, an attorney for the Atlanta Housing Authority, asked the commission to dismiss a related complaint against his client, contending that a loophole in state law only gave the panel a year to hear the case. That argument fell flat, and a lawyer for the commission said AHA was “not totally opposed” to signing a settlement similar to the development authority’s.
AHA gave $5,000 to Georgians for Community Redevelopment, a political committee that pushed for passage of the amendment.
Five other community improvement districts in metro Atlanta gave a total of $105,000 to the same political fund, but the commission ruled that they are not government agencies and dismissed ethics complaints against them.
Common Cause Georgia board member Chuck Clay warned the commission that dismissal would set a precedent allowing CIDs to pay for advocacy ads, rather than just impartial communications to educate voters on political issues. Common Cause Georgia had filed the complaints over the authorities’ spending.
“This idea of advocacy vs. education is going to be simply vacated,” Clay said. “Every one of these entities — some of which have a little money, some have a lot of money — are going to be under enormous pressure to suddenly be advocates from a variety of causes out there.”
Earlier in Thursday’s meeting, the commission reluctantly dropped a proposed advisory opinion that would have broadened reporting requirements for independent political committees.
Currently, such committees must register with the commission — and report the sources of their money — only if they expressly advocate election or defeat of a candidate. The opinion would have extended that requirement for political communications that named candidates without explicitly telling voters how to mark their ballots.
Stacey Kalberman, the commission’s executive secretary, said the opinion tracked guidelines set down by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. But the commission would have had to rescind one of its existing rules to enforce those guidelines, which it can’t do since the Legislature stripped its rule-making authority in 2009.
“It sounds like we have no choice,” commission member Kent Alexander said.
“As much as I hate to say it, yes,” Kalberman replied.
The Center for Individual Freedom, which asked the commission to clarify the rules in Georgia, used similar indirect advertising to attack Georgia Congressman Jim Marshall and nine other Democratic incumbents before this year’s election. Marshall lost the November election to former state legislator Austin Scott last month.
In other action, the commission:
- Levied a $3,000 fine on Jim Lientz, formerly Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief operating officer, for filing incomplete financial disclosure statements.
- Indicated that the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the Georgia Legislature may not exceed statutory limits for donations to Georgia political candidates. The commission directed the agency’s staff to rewrite a draft advisory opinion that would have held otherwise.
- Raised limits on campaign contributions to $6,300 for statewide candidates and $2,500 for all others, hikes of $200 and $100 respectively. The action reflected a change in the Consumer Price Index, which the commission is must consider every two years as it reviews the limits.
- Welcomed back Alexander, reappointed last week to the commission two months after he had resigned because of a new job’s demands on his time. Alexander said he quit the job when he realized it would require moving to Chicago. After the meeting, Alexander noted cheerfully that he’s now unemployed. (Join the club, pal).