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Judson Hill reports $34K in missing donations, but are there more?
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By JIM WALLS
Feb. 17, 2016 — Most legislators have misplaced a few campaign donations over the years. Sen. Judson Hill, at least figuratively, misplaced several dozen of them.
Now, following inquiries by Atlanta Unfiltered, the Marietta Republican has disclosed that he received 68 previously unreported campaign contributions totaling more than $34,000 since 2013.
Hill did not respond to our questions, though, regarding more than $20,000 that donors disclosed giving him earlier that he has not reported receiving.
The senator’s attorney, Doug Chalmers, blamed clerical errors for the campaign’s failure to disclose the $34,000. He declined comment on the earlier donations.
Non-disclosure of the missing donations underscores a major weakness in a system that counts on candidates to self-report their campaign finances without submitting documents that would corroborate the numbers.
William Perry, head of the non-profit Georgia Ethics Watchdogs advocacy group, says the only solution is to require that campaigns submit at least part of a current bank statement with each disclosure.
“It not only protects the citizens of this state so we have the transparent political system we’re supposed to have but also protects the candidate from making mistakes like Judson Hill has,” Perry said. “There’s just no excuse for that amount to be missing in three years.”
(Full disclosure: Atlanta Unfiltered and Georgia Ethics Watchdogs have entered into a strategic partnership to focus attention on government transparency and other issues.)
It’s not uncommon that a candidate’s disclosures don’t include a few contributions that registered donors have reporting making. Often, those checks were lost in the mail or in the clutter of a campaign official’s desk; sometimes, a donor will report voiding a check that went uncashed.
Other times, though, a candidate’s undisclosed donations and spending can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Rep. Earnest Smith of Augusta, for instance, is under investigation for allegedly failing to report $7,500 in donations and $25,000 in spending, an amount that includes more than $19,000 in checks written to cash. The discrepancies turned up following an audit of his disclosures.
In Hill’s case, Atlanta Unfiltered identified $37,950 in donations since 2006 that the senator had not reported receiving. We compiled the list by searching spending by Georgia’s PACs and other big donors for recipients that included the word “Judson” (a process that took just a few seconds, by the way). After winnowing out a few unrelated Judsons, we compared the results to Hill’s disclosures.
Hill’s aides reviewed the list earlier this month and amended nine campaign filings since 2013 to report $34,077 in previously undisclosed donations. He also reported giving the campaign more than $5,300 of his own money in that time.
The newly disclosed gifts included $13,550 for 18 donors that we had asked about and more than $20,000 from other donors. The latter didn’t turn up in our data search because they hadn’t filed disclosures; Georgia law only requires filings from donors who give more than $25,000 a year.
Chalmers, the senator’s campaign attorney, told us that the donations had not been reported earlier because the campaign’s treasurer had not seen emailed notices of them.
“When you brought the issue to our attention, we asked his campaign treasurer to review the records and it was determined that some emails sent to the treasurer had not been processed,” Chalmers said.
The cash balance on the Hill campaign’s most recent disclosure, Chalmers said, matches the amount shown on its most recent bank statement.
The starting balance on Hill’s first 2013 disclosure, amended this month, is another question. That amount is carried over from earlier reports that contained none of the $20,000-plus in donations that we’ve asked Hill about.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in November that it found discrepancies in campaign filings by some of the state’s most powerful politicians. Those errors, the newspaper said, were primarily due to accounting errors.
Perry noted that Georgia’s legislative leaders resist efforts at campaign finance reform, insisting “we need no improvements because we’ve got such fine ethical people.”
Hill’s case, Perry said, shows that “it’s not about good ethical people. It’s about a system that’s so full of loopholes that we can trust no one’s reports to be accurate.”