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Bill Hembree has a Wayback Money Machine
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By JIM WALLS
Nov. 26, 2012 — Legally, Georgians can’t spend campaign money raised for one political office to run for a different one. There’s a wide-open loophole, though, and veteran legislator Bill Hembree of Douglas County is only the latest to use it.
When Hembree left the Georgia House recently to seek a Senate seat, he emptied his House campaign account, refunding $60,400 to 28 donors. All but one of the refund checks was dated between Aug. 31 and Sept. 6. Beginning Sept. 1, a review of campaign disclosures shows, those same supporters gave $59,400 to Hembree’s just-opened Senate campaign account.
Here’s the clever part: Rather than simply returning the most recent contributions, Hembree reached back as far as 11 years to choose the donors who got refunds.
Hembree’s campaign had collected $390,000 in contributions since 2001. The refunds targeted donors who he expected would then return the money for his Senate bid.
“The problem with reaching back so far is you’re going beyond people who gave you money recently,” said William Perry, director of Common Cause Georgia, “and refunding dollars [that] you spent a long time ago.”
Hembree gave the Georgia Mining Association a $100 refund from 2001 and $250 from 2004. The Pharmacy Association received its $750 back from 2002 and 2003. The oilmen got back $650 from 2002 and 2004. All that money wound up in September in Hembree’s Senate campaign fund.
It’s as if Hembree, when the checks first came in, slipped them under the cash drawer rather than into the till, then retrieved them when he needed the money a decade later.
Meanwhile, Hembree spent another $330,000 out of the till. Most of those donors got none of their money back.
The practice conforms with a 2008 advisory opinion by the State Ethics Commission on refunding donations, said campaign consultant Rick Thompson, who advised Hembree on the refunds. Thompson was the commission’s executive secretary when the opinion was drafted.
“The law allows you … to return any contribution. It doesn’t have to be [from] a specific election or time frame,” Thompson said.
Former Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, who requested the 2008 opinion, refunded $422,000 to donors from his Senate account late that year. He got the bulk of those funds back in contributions to his 2010 campaign for governor.
Hembree decided which of his donors got refunds, Thompson said, choosing the ones “that he thought would hopefully support his run for Senate.”
“I think generally if people get money back,” Thompson said, “they don’t mind helping an individual out.”
Many of those donors were informed of their refunds ahead of time, Thompson said. A solicitation letter or phone call for the Senate campaign would follow.
Such transactions are legal as long as the refund checks are physically returned and donors get to choose what to do with the money. Georgia law bars candidates from simply transferring the money from one campaign account to another, even if the original donors are given the option of asking for their money back.
Committees formed to recall a public official or advocate for or against a ballot question may only refund money on a pro-rata basis. Candidates, on the other hand, may return donations “without limitation.”
Perry suggested tweaking the rules so candidates don’t favor one contributor over another for campaign funds.
“There should be priority order given to recent donors so that there isn’t the appearance that you’re cherry-picking only those donors that will give you money back,” Perry said.
Donors’ regifting of Hembree’s House contributions gave him a huge cash advantage over his remaining opponent for the Senate seat. Hembree reported more than $126,000 in donations though Oct. 25, compared to about $17,000 for Mike Dugan, a Carrollton contractor and 20-year Army veteran.
Hembree and Dugan square off in a Dec. 4 runoff for the Senate seat.
Hembree refunded contributions to his House campaign from these years:
- 2001 — $200
- 2002 — $400
- 2003 — $750
- 2004 — $2,200
- 2005 — $300
- 2006 — $2,650
- 2007 — $6,050
- 2008 — $2,000
- 2009 — $2,600
- 2010 — $21,000
- 2011 — $7,750
- 2012 — $12,650