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    Political spending by House, Senate caucuses murky

     

    By JIM WALLS

    Last month, the Senate Republican Caucus reported spending $22,000-plus on polling, robocalls and a campaign aide to support Gwinnettian Garry Guan’s race for the Senate.

    That would be a problem. State law treats those expenditures as campaign contributions — capped at $2,400 to any one candidate. The remaining 20 grand would be illegal.

    Now, Republicans say that disclosure was a mistake, that the spending benefited other candidates besides Guan. But that explanation underscores other weaknesses in campaign finance practices.

    When I first ran across the disclosures, I made some phone calls to learn more. I called Sen. Greg Goggans, the caucus’s treasurer, twice, as well as the Georgia Republican Party. Never heard back.

    Within a couple days, though, the caucus amended its report, removing Guan’s name from $10,000 reported as being spent on his behalf. Those costs were now described as “campaign consulting” with no candidate’s name attached.

    Last week, after more calls, I tracked down Nathan Humphrey, chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams. He told me that mistakes were made: Guan’s name was improperly attached to expenses that actually benefited several candidates.

    The disclosure was amended to correct those errors after my calls, Humphrey said. (They missed a couple of mistakes, which I helpfully pointed out.)

    “It is easy to make mistakes filling out disclosures,” Humphrey said in a prepared statement. “It can be complicated and having to make amendments is very common.”

    But the revised disclosure provided less and even vaguer information, not more, and Humphrey — tied up with important legislative duties — could not provide a reliable list of candidates helped by the caucus.

    Candidates’ disclosures showed none reported receiving the caucus’ assistance.

    Freshman Sen. Jesse Stone said a campaign aide, paid by the caucus to help several candidates, told him not to worry about it.

    “The question did come up, I asked if it needed to be reported and I was told it did not,” he said.

    The law, however, reads otherwise.

    “If the candidate is receiving signs … or robocalls as opposed to direct money, they have to report it as an in-kind contribution,” said Stacey Kalberman, executive secretary of the State Campaign Finance Commission. “There’s no doubt about that.”

    So who’s to know how much help the caucus provided, and to whom, and whether it fell within the legal limit? Not me, and not you. The fact is, the public generally sees very little about how political parties and caucuses spend their money.

    Over on the Democratic side, disclosures are just as murky. Spending by the House and Senate caucuses is lumped in with the state party’s. Last year, based on interviews and documents, I reported that those caucuses spent $25,000 or more each to help several candidates.

    The caucuses circumvented spending limits under a loophole intended for political parties. The caucuses can spend as much as they want for mailings or TV ads for a single candidate, party officials say, if they name other candidates in the fine print.

    Both major parties in Georgia use this ploy to justify hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on multi-candidate mailings.

    As it turns out, political caucuses cannot. Last fall, I asked the Campaign Finance Commission (then known as the Ethics Commission) for an advisory opinion to clarify the matter. Next week, the commission is expected to say that party caucuses are not exempt from spending limits.

    Sen. Vincent Fort, who got the Senate caucus’ help in his 2010 primary, didn’t even need its money. He gave $30,000 in June to the caucus, which then spent that much and a little more on mailings on his behalf. (Critics say the pro-Fort mailings, by using the state party’s return address, appeared inappropriately to indicate it was endorsing him over his Democratic challenger.)

    When I asked Fort why he didn’t pay for the mailings himself, he told me it had always been done that way.

    Well, at least according to the Campaign Finance Commission, not any more.

     

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