July 8, 2013 — Sen. Don Balfour has learned — the hard way — what a difference a year can make. Balfour today reported collecting just $2,000 in political donations for the first six months of 2013, following his demotion to chairing the Senate Reapportionment Committee. For the same period in each of the previous two years, he pulled in $137,000.
Feb. 19, 2013 — A previously unnoticed loophole could allow Georgia politicians to reimburse themselves thousands of dollars from campaign funds without explaining how they spent the money. A key legislator shepherding House Speaker David Ralston’s ethics bills says the problem will be fixed. Details of the proposed solution, however, were not immediately clear. Without a fix, candidates could use political contributions any way they wanted by simply buying something with personal funds and getting their campaign accounts to pay them back.
Nov. 26, 2012 — Legally, Georgians can’t spend campaign money raised for one political office to run for a different one. There’s a wide-open loophole, though, and veteran legislator Bill Hembree of Douglas County is only the latest to use it.
When Hembree left the Georgia House recently, he refunded $60,400 from his House campaign account to donors. Within a week, those same supporters gave all but $1,000 of the money back to Hembree to run for a just-opened Senate seat. Here’s the clever part: Rather than simply returning the most recent contributions, Hembree reached back as far as 11 years to choose the donors who got refunds.
Paul Battles’ personal financial disclosures have omitted his role as trustee for two trusts established by his wife’s late aunt and uncle. One of them — Collins Charitable Remainder Unitrust — sold 6.5 acres in downtown Cartersville to the state Department of Transportation in 2011. Battles also did not disclose that transaction or the $2.2 million purchase price, which benefited local charities. “I didn’t think I had to do one for the trusts since I get no financial benefit from that,” he said. Battles’ family business owns 6.2 adjoining acres, zoned for commercial use.
Battles retired from Crescent Bank of Jasper in 2007 but remained on its board through 2009, as examiners were beginning to sound warnings that the bank needed to tighten lending practices and oversight by its board of directors. State regulators closed the bank in 2010 at a loss to federal insurers of $280 million. The FDIC, in a 2011 postmortem, blamed Crescent’s collapse on an aggressive growth strategy, a heavy concentration of speculative construction loans and the board’s and officers’ failure to effectively manage the associated risks.
FDIC’s 2011 postmortem said the bank violated FDIC appraisal standards, failed to vet prospective borrowers or to establish loan agreements to protect the bank’s investment, and renewed non-performing loans without proper safeguards. A 2009 cease and desist order cited eight pages of apparent law and policy violations that contained in a bank examiner’s report that has not been released publicly. The bank had already responded by toughening its risk management practices, but those corrections came too late. The FDIC’s inspector general later faulted the agency for not intervening sooner and more proactively.
Battles said the FDIC told bank officials they had done everything they could to keep Crescent open. “They said that we had gone above and beyond the call of duty trying to save the bank,” he said in an interview. “By the time we were trying to adjust, the dominoes had started falling. … We were fighting a foe that was bigger than all of us.”
Oct. 1, 2012 — Sen. Jack Murphy collected $5,000 in May from his legislative expense account for a constituent newsletter that his campaign paid for, state records show. Murphy, who signed a sworn statement that he had paid for the newsletter personally, said the mix-up was inadvertent and that he has repaid his campaign account in full. An ethics watchdog says questions about this and other recently disclosed Senate expense reimbursements underscore a need for more scrutiny. “Senate leadership should come up with a plan to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.
Unraveling campaign finance and lobbyist spending reports can be difficult if you don’t know the lingo. Trade associations frequently create political action committees (PACs) with names that mask, intentionally or not, the special interests behind them. Others are known only by obscure acronyms; some use the same acronym. So, as we continue to shine a light on special interests’ influence in Georgia, we’ve compiled this quick guide to who’s who among the PACs
State legislators say they welcome transparency regarding their personal finances — corporate and real estate holdings, government contracts and the like.But who decides what constitutes transparency? Who checks whether they’re telling us all that we’re entitled to know? They do. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, transparency is too important to be left to the politicians.