Nathan Deal, take note: New rules close loopholes for mystery campaign spending
By JIM WALLS
Dec. 15, 2015 — Two new campaign finance rules prevent the kind of maneuver that Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign used to avoid explaining more than $9,100 in credit card charges.
On a 4-0 vote today, the Georgia Campaign Finance Commission clarified that failing to disclose how campaign donations are spent cannot be considered a so-called “technical defect.” State law provides that a minor omissions in a candidate’s disclosure can be deemed a defect subject to a $50 penalty rather than a heftier fine.
A second rule change approved today requires that technical defects must be corrected. Under one interpretation of state law, payment of the $50 fee would preclude the need to supply yh missing information.
Deal, to help resolve a two-year ethics investigation in 2012, paid $1,050 for failing to disclose the purpose and end recipient of campaign payments during his 2010 run for governor.
The settlement came after a commission audit found the Deal campaign’s itemized reports of its credit card spending fell about $10,300 short of its payments for those bills. In February 2010, for instance, Deal reported paying a $9,543 MasterCard bill but only itemized $5,989 of it. A month later, it paid a $5,725 bill but only itemized $4,330.
In the Deal case, the commission treated the missing data as technical defects, even though state law requires candidates to disclose who they pay, and for what purpose, for every expense of $100 or more.
The term “technical defect” is generally used to describe an accounting error or omission of information such as a donors’ address or employer.
One of Deal’s unexplained charges turned out to be an inadvertent payment of $1,071 for campaign manager Chris Riley’s personal expenses, a campaign lawyer acknowledged in 2012. Riley paid the money back, the lawyer said.
The campaign has never explained the other discrepancies, even though its lawyers said it would do so, and never identified the credit card holder, as required by law. As a result, it’s unknown what those mystery payments were for and whether anyone might have personally benefited.
Atlanta Unfiltered reported last month that similar discrepancies can be found in Deal’s campaign disclosures while he was serving in Congress. From 1998 to 2009, more than $60,000 of his credit card pending was unexplained.
The State Auditor last year criticized the commission for inconsistency by treating similar issues as technical defects in some cases and as more serious violations in others.
Also today, the commission discussed but couldn’t pull the trigger on another rule change to require lobbyists to report gifts to an elected official’s immediate family — spouse, parents or dependent children. Commission members were concerned the proposal might go beyond legislators’ intent.
As we reported in 2010, lobbyists regularly pay for meals, lodging and special events for legislative spouses, often without disclosing the expenses.