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AG collected $696K from donors regulated by ethics panel
By JIM WALLS
Donors include parties in high-profile inquiries into possible misuse of campaign funds or receipt of improper contributions, such as Philip Wilheit, who was Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign manager in 2010, and House Speaker David Ralston. Robert K. Finnell, an attorney for two insurance companies accused of improperly funneling $120,000 in donations to Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, contributed to Olens three times.
The Georgia Campaign Finance Commission, adjusting to recent budget cuts and the loss of its top two staffers, plans to use Olens’ office to write consent and compliance orders to settle alleged violations of campaign and lobbyist reporting laws. The AG’s staff would also present investigative findings in formal hearings before the commission.
Olens has agreed to the arrangement for a 90-day trial run. A vote on the proposal could come Friday.
To try to keep politics out of Georgia’s campaign finance enforcement, state law bars commission members from some political activity. Turning more of the commission’s duties over to an elected official with a hefty campaign warchest could create the impression that investigations are not properly insulated from political pressure.
“There is always a potential for a conflict,” commission vice chairman Josh Belinfante acknowledged, “but I don’t think … that means a conflict exists.”
Belinfante noted that Olens’ office already represents the commission when its decisions are reviewed by an administrative law judge. Olens’ staff will provide legal advice, but the commission’s staff will conduct investigations and compile evidence.
Lawyers in the attorney general’s officer “will be assisting in the investigations, but they’re not leading the investigations,” he said.
Lauren Kane, Olens’ director of communications, also noted that the AG’s office would play a secondary role.
“We actually would not have an investigative role,” Kane said. The commission “would still investigate the claims and the Department of Law would simply present the results of the investigations to the … commission, which is not materially different from our current role of prosecuting the cases before an administrative law judge.”
The commission now has one auditor to investigate complaints and plans to hire a second. Investigations had been led until recently by executive secretary Stacey Kalberman, who was forced to resign in June, and her deputy, whose job was eliminated — personnel moves that some suggest were politically motivated.
In other arms of state government, elected officials are forbidden from accepting campaign donations from entities that they license or regulate. Insurance companies can’t give to the insurance commissioner, for example, and utilities can’t donate to members of the Public Service Commission.
Olens has raised about $1,864,000 since he launched his bid for attorney general in 2009. Of that amount, an analysis of campaign reports shows, at least $503,000 came from sources registered with the Campaign Finance Commission: campaign and political action committees, which must regularly report donations and spending; appointed public officials who must file an annual summary of their personal financial holdings; and lobbyists, who must report at least once a month on their spending on public officials. An additional $193,000 in donations came from the clients of registered lobbyists.
Other donors to Olens’ campaign include Senate President Tommie Williams and Majority Leader Chip Rogers; Rep. Joe Wilkinson, chairman of the House Ethics Committee; Chuck Clay, a board member of Common Cause Georgia, a good-government group advocating tougher enforcement of ethics laws; James Walters, founder of a new political action committee believed to be connected to Deal; and PerduePac, former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s political action committee.