Senate GOP PAC raised $276K over 20 months without disclosure
This is the first of at least a dozen planned articles on “Invisible Money” in Georgia politics — funds that slip in and out of politicians’ hands without true transparency. To help us research and produce more articles like this one, please use the Donate button on this page.
By JIM WALLS
Feb. 10, 2015 — A 2005 amendment to Georgia’s campaign finance law was meant to give smaller donors a break on filing public disclosures. A decade later, though, Senate Republicans applied the law to their own PAC, raising $276,000 over a 20-month period before disclosing even a penny of it.
The Georgia Republican Senatorial Committee, after raising money since May 2013, filed its first disclosure with the state ethics commission last month. Each GOP senator kicked in $250 in dues, the filing showed, but the big money — more than $267,000 — came from the corporations and trade groups whose lobbyists roam the halls of the Capitol.
AT&T, which had a big stake in a broadband bill that the Senate debated in 2014, was the committee’s most generous supporter at $19,000. Other perennial players gave at the $10,000 level, including AGL Resources, Coca-Cola, Georgia Power Co., a nursing home chain and the state’s beer wholesalers and car dealers.
Senators must disclose campaign donations six times in election years and twice in off years, even if they haven’t received any. PACs — even those run by legislators to support their re-election — don’t have to report anything unless they make more than $25,000 in campaign donations in a year.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that the law is so weak that $250,000-plus can be raised without being reported for so long,” said William Perry, executive director of the good-government advocacy group Common Cause Georgia. “This is a glaring example of how far we have to go in Georgia for fairer disclosure.”
PACs and other donors to Georgia political campaigns, unless they’re exempted, must register with the ethic commission and file regular reports of their political contributions. State law used to exempt donors who gave $5,000 or less in a year, but that threshold was hiked to $25,000 in 2005 when the Legislature tacked on an amendment to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue’s ethics reform bill.
The higher threshold was intended to removing an undue burden from those who might make only one or two contributions a year, said Robert Highsmith, who was Perdue’s special counsel on the ethics bill.
The theory was that “there’s no public policy value in forcing that guy to sign up for a whole host of regulatory compliance burdens with the state ethics commission,” Highsmith said, “but the feeling was if it’s $25,000, you’re a pretty significant participant in the process.”
Highsmith said he was present when the higher threshold came up, but he doesn’t recall who proposed it. Nor does Rep. Rich Golick, the bill’s sponsor.
“It wasn’t in the governor’s initial proposal,” Highsmith said, “but we didn’t object to it either.”
Highsmith, who also represents the Republican Senatorial Committee, said the PAC will not wait another two years before filing its next disclosure.
“Now that the committee is up and running and will be contributing regularly to candidates,” Highsmith said, “it plans to file on the same schedule as candidates regardless of the $25,000 threshold.”
It will do so voluntarily, though, unless the campaign finance law is changed.
The PAC gave $50,900 in 2014 to Republican Senate candidates, Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. It passed the $25,000 threshold on Sept. 28, disclosures show, which meant it should have filed disclosures on Oct. 1 and again on Oct. 25.
Highsmith said he had not reviewed the PAC’s filing and could not comment on its failure to file on those dates.
The PAC was created in 2013 to replace the Georgia Republican Senatorial Trust, which came under fire after giving $140,000 to another committee that produced mailings promoting eight senators’ re-election. Critics charged the tactic violated campaign contribution limits as well as a requirement that the committee receiving the money operate independently.
Common Cause’s Perry said the Republican committee’s belated disclosure demonstrates why Georgia needs to require that PACs report more thoroughly and more frequently on their finances.
“This is why we pushed to always include in our ethics reform … to have full disclosure of all contributions and all expenditures by PACs,” Perry said.
“Every candidate has to report everything no matter if it’s just money raised or money spent … and then lobbyists have to file reports whether or not they spend any money,” he said, “so why are PACs so far off the mark in terms of disclosure?”