Ethics panel slaps ex-speaker’s wrist, waffles on some donation limits
By MAGGIE LEE
Former House Speaker Glenn Richardson must pay a $500 fine, but his political fund may keep $219,915 that was transferred improperly from his campaign account last year, the State Ethics Commission ruled today.
A campaign account in Georgia may transfer unused cash in several ways, including giving the money to a non-profit organization. Richardson closed his campaign account Dec. 31 by writing a check to the MMV Alliance Fund, a political action committee (PAC) under his control, which was not a non-profit at the time.
MMV filed non-profit papers with the state and IRS in February, several weeks after Atlanta Unfiltered raised questions about the transfer and the State Ethics Commission opened an investigation.
“It was just an oversight that the PAC wasn’t a non-profit,” argued Richardson’s lawyer, former Ethics Commission member Robert Highsmith.
Highsmith suggested MMV’s only fault was failing to file a simple state document after the PAC was formed in 2004.
State ethics staff worked out the consent order with MMV, which the commission accepted without debate.
Richardson resigned from the House in December following allegations that he’d had an affair with a lobbyist and had threatened his ex-wife.
The commission’s Richardson decision was “reprehensible,” opined Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a good-government advocacy group. “Setting up a PAC is a convenient way to move campaign money to someplace else where you’re not as restricted on how you spend it,” he said.
But Bozarth was much more interested in a case relating to a losing mayoral candidate in Warner Robins.
Candidate Charles Chalk accepted a $10,000 donation from the campaign fund of deceased Mayor Donald Walker. A complaint to the Ethics Commission alleged that was a breach of campaign finance law, which limits donations in municipal races to $2,400.
The commission threw out the Chalk case today because its own rule on transfers from one campaign to another seemed to conflict with the law. But the panel agreed to study the apparent conflict and issue an advisory opinion on the principle.
Georgia’s Ethics in Government Act says unused campaign funds may be transferred “without limitation to any national, state, or local committee of any political party or to any candidate.”
“However,” State Ethics Commission rules note, “contributions to any candidate or candidate’s campaign committee may not exceed contribution limits, and such contributions are subject to all other restrictions or prohibitions contained in the Ethics in Government Act or other applicable law.”
Executive Secretary Stacey Kalberman suggested the commission clarify: Are there limits, or no limits, on campaign-to-campaign transfers?
Bozarth slammed the commission’s decision, which he said “threw out decades of precedents” by abolishing its own rule.
Commission Vice President William Jordan shot back “a rule can’t abrogate statute.” Jordan said he would like to see a cap on campaign-to-campaign transfers but it is not currently in the law.
Legislation to put a limit on campaign-to-campaign transfers was bottled up in committee in 2010. Bozarth said Common Cause already has some legislative support to try again in 2011.
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