Ralston’s legal stance could gut ethics panel’s powers
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By JIM WALLS
Oct. 8, 2013 — Georgia lawmakers touted their 2013 ethics bill as historic, noting among other reforms that they had restored rule-making authority to the Campaign Finance Commission.
Now, though, House Speaker David Ralston’s lawyer contends the commission can’t enforce a key rule to require disclosure of certain details of campaign spending.
The speaker’s legal position, if it prevails, could muzzle the watchdog charged with policing campaign finance and disclosure in Georgia. Politicians could obscure the details of countless dollars in campaign spending simply by using a personal credit card and getting reimbursed with campaign funds.
Rule-making allows a government agency to set procedures for enforcing laws under its jurisdiction. Before the Legislature striped away that power in 2009, the commission by rule required that campaigns report enough detail to show that their expenses were legally permissible. Georgia law says candidates generally may only spend contributions to seek office or, if elected, to fulfill the duties of that office.
Applying that standard recently in an investigation of Ralston’s campaign expenses, though, drew a 13-page protest from Doug Chalmers, the speaker’s lawyer.
Once the commission lost its rule-making powers, Chalmers maintained in an Aug. 28 letter, it could no longer enforce any rules that weren’t authorized by the Legislature. Moreover, he wrote, a 2011 change to the Campaign Finance Act barred the commission from requiring candidates to disclose information that the law doesn’t require. The law says campaigns must disclose the “general purpose” of an expense — and nothing more.
The commission’s investigation appears to focus on whether Ralston reported enough details about certain expenses. It also questions payments for staff dinners, flowers, Christmas cards and a Christmas lunch, according to Chalmers’ letter.
Neither Chalmers nor the commission would release details of a July 29 notice containing new allegations of campaign violations by the speaker. The investigation started when the commission received a complaint against Ralston in 2010.
Ralston’s campaign recently amended 14 disclosures from 2008 to 2013 to describe certain expenses as being for “official purposes.” Chalmers wrote that Holly LaBerge, the commission’s executive secretary, told him that language would be sufficient to comply with the law.
That standard would allow candidates to report the general purpose of an expense — such as food, lodging or travel — without having to provide the details to justify it.
Chalmers’ interpretation would nullify other commission rules on candidate reimbursements and credit card expenses. The rules specify that candidates must disclose the end recipients of payments made with credit cards or with personal funds that are reimbursed with campaign funds. The law requires disclosure of the recipient of campaign funds but not the end recipient.
Many campaigns neglect to report those details. Rep. Tom Rice, for one, has collected nearly $27,000 in campaign reimbursements without disclosing any detail on the purpose or end recipients.
Atlanta Unfiltered wrote about these very issues as Ralston’s 2013 ethics bill wound through the Legislature. Rep. Rich Golick, who shepherded the bill through the House, acknowledged the language would create disclosure loopholes and vowed it would be fixed.
The “fix,” though, was the addition of language allowing the commission to enforce disclosure rules that were in effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Chalmers, on Ralston’s behalf, is now arguing those disclosure rules were not in effect on that date.
Footnote: I hate to say it, but I totally saw this coming.
Atlanta Unfiltered emailed Golick in February to ask why the ethics bill didn’t simply require the same disclosure that the commission’s rules do. He responded by email:
I checked with legislative counsel, and the bottom line is that any rule in effect 1/1/13 (which would include the reimbursement/end recipient reporting requirement) would remain in effect, and there’s nothing in the Bill that conflicts with that requirement. I don’t think it would have been a good idea to codify the rule for fear that it might tie the Commission’s hands later in the event a modification of the rule would be warranted …
I followed up, suggesting that a lawyer could argue that the 2010 law, which took effect in 2011, could still supersede the disclosure rule:
“… you guys passed a law in 2010 that said the commission can’t require more disclosure than the law allows. Maybe the commission could enforce the rule before then, but it seems like that 2010 law precluded them from doing so going forward. (I can just hear Randy Evans or Doug Chalmers making that argument a year or two from now.)”
I see Rule 189-3-.05 Reimbursement of Expenses on the Commission website as currently being in effect, so all good as far as I can see.
As it turned out, Chalmers only took six months to make the argument that I predicted. The commission’s hands are about to be tied.