Loophole D: Dormant campaign accounts fade away with no accountability
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By JIM WALLS
Dec. 11, 2015 — Former Sen. Chip Rogers, who hasn’t reported on his six-figure campaign account since 2013, sits atop a list of dozens of politicians who appear to have done the same thing.
Atlanta Unfiltered, using Georgia’s searchable campaign finance database, found 48 former state office-holders and candidates whose most recent disclosures showed their campaign accounts still held amounts ranging from $500 to as much as $108,000.
They include a felon, a tax delinquent, a former House speaker, a former state school superintendent, a federal prosecutor, a DOT board member, a former DOT commissioner and several state officials pulling down more than $100,000 a year. Between them, the non-filers left nearly $1.1 million in campaign funds unaccounted for.
Some of the non-filers told me they believed their final disclosure had been filed years ago; a few said they didn’t know they had to keep filing them. Several didn’t return my calls.
Georgia law requires that office-seekers, even after voters have cast their ballots, keep reporting regularly on campaign finances as long as they have unspent donations.
The mandate is rarely enforced, though, unless a complaint is filed with the state Campaign Finance Commission. Non-filers haven’t been sent notices of their violations because the commission couldn’t afford to send them by certified mail, as the Legislature requires.
Non-filers generally aren’t even assessed a $125 late fee.
“It’s because the system that’s supposed to check … is an antiquated system that doesn’t do an adequate job,” said Stefan Ritter, the commission’s executive secretary. He said he’s working to fix the problem.
The Federal Election Commission, in contrast, automatically imposes fines on non-filers based on the amount of unreported donations and spending and the number of prior violations. It also sends out news releases like this one.
Candidates may not use campaign donations for personal expenses. Nothing in the public record indicates that any of the following 21 political campaigns did so. But without the necessary disclosures, with all due respect, there’s also nothing to show that they didn’t.
Here are 23 candidates whose last disclosures showed more than $5,000 cash on hand:
Chip Rogers, who resigned shortly after winning re-election in 2012, had $206,406 in his Senate campaign fund at last report in July 2013, plus $10,875 in a still-active account from a term 10 years ago in the House. He hasn’t filed reports on either one since 2013 but has amended earlier disclosures to add debts of $46,000 more than he previously claimed was owed him.
After 24 years in the House, Jeanette Jamieson had more than $108,000 in her campaign fund after losing a 2008 re-election bid. She’s filed no disclosures since then. She said she’s spent most of the money on political and charitable donations, which she plans to disclose once she’s made one final gift. “All of my accounts have been legitimately spent except for $4,000, and I have plans for that,” she said. Jamieson, who pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in 2011 for failing to file income tax returns, was elected later that year to the Toccoa City Commission.
Former House Speaker Terry Coleman reported $79,612 in his campaign fund for labor commissioner on his last disclosure in 2010, plus $4,442 left from his days in the House. Coleman’s campaign also has the unusual distinction of owning an 11.7-acre, $60,000 undeveloped lot in Henry County, received as restitution from a staffer who embezzled from his campaign. The campaign’s disclosures have not listed the property as an investment.
After Brad Bryant became interim state school superintendent in 2010, he raised $155,000 to try to get on that year’s ballot for a full four-year term. Bryant’s petition drive fell short and he abandoned the effort after a few weeks, reporting $78,449 cash on hand at the end of 2010. He’s filed nothing since then. “If it was on me to do that, then I was unaware of that,” said Bryant, now director of the REACH Scholarship program at the Georgia Student Finance Commission. He said he will file disclosures to close the account.
Ex-Rep. Jeff Lewis, after losing a 2008 re-election bid, kept filing campaign disclosures through 2012. The most recent once showed $75,124 in campaign funds were invested in an Edward Jones account. Lewis, who has served on the state Board of Transportation since 2011, did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.
Vance Smith served 17 years in the House before being named state transportation commissioner, a job he held for two years, in 2009. He kept filing disclosures showing political and charitable donations from the House account until June 2014, when he said $72,982 was remaining. He did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Georganna Sinkfield’s campaign had $71,799 left after running for secretary of state in 2010. It owed her nearly 10 times as much, though, as disclosures show she and her husband invested $673,000 of their own money into the race. Sinkfield said she didn’t know she was required to keep filing disclosures once the election was over. The campaign’s bank account is now closed, she said.
Perennial candidate Angela Moore still had $50,828 in her account in June 2010 for her own race for secretary of state, which finished third behind Sinkfield in the Democratic primary. She’s filed no disclosures for that account since then.
At last report, ex-Rep. Jeff May had $42,050 left in two campaign accounts for the House and Public Service Commission. May, now chief information officer at the state Labor Department, spoke with me briefly last week but did not respond to subsequent voicemail messages seeking comment.
The late Rep. Bobby Franklin‘s campaign reported a cash balance of $33,945 when he died in 2011. No additional disclosures have been filed since then.
Chris Irvin reported $24,545 in his campaign account for agriculture commissioner, the job once held by granddad Tommy Irvin, when his most recent disclosure was filed for September 2014. (That amount included more than $12,000 that he had loaned to the campaign.) Irvin told me a campaign aide was supposed to have filed the missing disclosures and he is working to get them completed.
Former Rep. Jim Cole, now athletic director at Mercer University in Macon, reported $19,230 in his campaign fund on his last disclosure in July 2010. He sent me paperwork showing he closed the campaign’s bank account in early 2012. Cole said he thought he’d filed a final disclosure with the Campaign Finance Commission; a commission official, though, said he started a final report using its online filing system but did not submit it.
At last report, former Rep. Keith Heard had $11,305 left in his House campaign account and $7,048 in a fund for his 2014 bid for insurance commissioner. This morning, Heard filed a new disclosure showing he’d spent all but $79 on the insurance race; he said he’d neglected to file it earlier due to an oversight. He told me he hopes to close out the House account next week, a task complicated by an email hack in which he lost campaign records. “We’re going to correct those,” he said.
Rep. Terry Rogers ran for the Senate before winning his House seat in 2010. The Senate account showed a balance of $15,532 when it last filed a disclosure in 2011. Rogers said all of that money, which included a $6,000 personal loan, was spent on the 2010 campaign. “Not only did I get beat, I lost money,” he said.
Former Rep. Mike Keown‘s last report showed a balance of $15,212 left from a 2014 special election for state Senate. “That’s been closed forever,” Keown told me. The commission, though, said he started a final report in its online filing system but did not submit it. Keown said a campaign consultant is looking into the discrepancy.
Simone Bell, who recently resigned her House seat, reported cash balances totaling $12,878 on two 2014 disclosures. She reported on campaign spending in 2014 other than her $400 qualifying fee. Bell did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Jim Whitehead, who left the state Senate in 2007 to run for Congress, reported $10,271 in his state campaign fund when he last filed a disclosure in 2009. Whitehead said he gave the money to charities, closing the bank account in 2011, but didn’t realize he needed to file more disclosures.
Former Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz finished third in the May 2014 Republican primary for a seat on the Public Service Commission. His last disclosure, filed six weeks earlier, showed the campaign had $10,055 in the bank and owed him $5,035 for a personal loan. Lutz said the campaign spent all the money before the primary and he thought he had filed a final disclosure saying so. The commission, though, says it has no record of one.
Ed Tarver, the U.S. attorney for Georgia’s Southern District since 2009, told me disclosures for his state Senate campaign fund were filed by his sister until she died. The last disclosure in 2011 showed his account held $9,672, funds that he said were donated to a scholarship foundation in Augusta. “I’ll look into it and have something filed,” he said.
Former Sen. Charles Walker, released last year from federal prison, had $7,725 in his Senate campaign account when he was convicted in June 2005 of 127 counts of fraud, tax evasion and other charges. He never filed another disclosure.
Rashad Taylor, who lost his House seat in 2010 after serving two terms, filed his last disclosure that year to show his campaign account held $7,632, which included $4,000 he had loaned it.
Delvis Dutton left a state House seat — and a $6,201 campaign account — to run for Congress in 2014. He told me the other day he thought he’d submitted a final disclosure when he visited the commission’s offices to pay a late filing fee, but the commission says it doesn’t have a record of one.
Megan Biello ran in four elections (counting runoffs) for the House seat held by the late Calvin Hill. Commission records show she still has one active campaign account with a $5,243 cash balance. She disputed that when we spoke the other day. “There’s no money there,” she said. “Every dime of the expenses is accounted for and I closed everything as quickly as I possibly could.”
Commission records show 25 other state officeholders and candidates stopped filing disclosures even though they last reported cash balances of at least $500.
I haven’t called them, so I’m not naming them. Maybe later.