PSC’s McDonald faces $25K ethics fine
By JIM WALLS
Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald is looking at a possible $24,850 fine for campaign finance violations during his 2002 race against Angela Speir.
McDonald failed to report $46,000 in campaign contributions and $76,000 in spending from that race, Kay Baker, deputy executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, testified in an administrative hearing this morning.
McDonald lost the 2002 campaign to Speir but was elected in November after Speir chose not to seek re-election.
According to testimony and documents in the case, McDonald’s campaign also:
— filed his final 2002 financial report 13 months late, and then amended it three times with more information
— reported his campaign fund “zeroed out” at the end of 2002 when it really had about $8,000 in the bank.
— reimbursed him $2,928 for campaign expenses, and paid $618 for credit card charges, without specifying the end recipient of the money.
— failed to file four supplemental campaign reports in 2003 and 2004.
— did not provide employment information or addresses for dozens of contributors, regarded as a minor, “technical defect.”
Most of the unreported contributions came from law firms and telephone companies. The PSC regulates phone companies.
The Ethics Commission’s staff has proposed a fine of $24,850 based on a loose formula that considers the egregious nature of each indiviual violation. McDonald, who did not dispute the charges, told the judge he was willing to pay a $5,000 fine to put the matter behind him.
He said he thought the matter had been closed when he amended the campaign reports in 2005. He argued the proposed fine would have been much lower if the Ethics Commission had pursued the case at that time.
Ethics fines have gotten tougher since then, Baker said. But it’s impossible to say what the commission might have fined McDonald then, because penalties were assessed as a lump sum with no explanation of how they were calculated, she said.
McDonald argued that the ethics case should be dismissed because of a 5-year statute of limitations. But an administrative law judge ruled that statute was not in effect at the time of the violations. McDonald said his failure to report contributions and expenses should be considered a single violation, but the commission regards the 100 or so omissions as individual violations each carrying a $250 fine.
McDonald complained about getting rung up for the technical defects involving contributors’ employers and other information. “It’s kinda hard when you don’t have a big staff running a statewide campaign,” he said.
The Ethics Commission sent the case to the Attorney General’s office in 2005 but it “remained inactive” for some time because of a miscommunication, Senior Assistant Attorney General Rebecca S. Mick told the judge. She said the case was assigned to her in September 2008.
A decision on the amount of McDonald’s fine is expected within six weeks.
Shawn Davis, a senior associate with Joe Tanner’s lobbying and government affairs firm, sat with McDonald to advise him throughout Monday’s hearing. Davis, who worked in McDonald’s 2008 campaign, is a former staffer with the Ethics Commission and PSC, according to his company bio.
Tanner’s firm lobbies for clients including Georgia Power Co. and Colonial Pipeline. Davis himself is not a registered lobbyist.
Davis was at the center of a PSC controversy in 2005 for work performed for a previous employer, a subcontractor to Atlanta Gas Light.
AGL charged ratepayers $2.3 million for an educational campaign about cleaning up toxic coal tar in Augusta. The charges included parties, a quail hunt, gift baskets, and $200 an hour for Davis’s services running the program. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Davis billed more than $300,000 for the equivalent of nine months’ work.
AGL later agreed to reimburse ratepayers $600,000 after a PSC audit questioned many of the expenses.