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Shifting of campaign funds by 4 Georgia congressmen raises questions

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter raised more than $360,000 in contributions over five years while running for and then serving in the Georgia Senate, much of it coming from statehouse special interests.

The Pooler Republican still had money left over in his Georgia Senate account when he ran for Congress in 2014. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of disclosures found that in March of that year, he contributed $1,000 from that Senate account to his congressional race. In May of this year he gave another $1,000 from that account to his congressional re-election campaign.

Three other Georgia congressmen who previously served in the General Assembly — Republican U.S. Reps. Tom Graves, Barry Loudermilk and Austin Scott — listed making similar contributions, the AJC found.

Now, questions are being raised about whether those contributions, from money originally raised for state House and Senate campaigns, were legal.

Stefan Ritter, the executive secretary of the state ethics commission, said the full commission would have to rule on the legality.

But he added, “I can tell you that in my opinion, it does not appear proper.”

Ritter said state law does not allow a candidate for the General Assembly, for instance, to raise money for his office and then later give the money to a campaign for another office he is seeking.

When contacted by the AJC, Carter initially said Wednesday in a statement that the contributions were aboveboard and followed Federal Election Commission regulations. Later in the day, he said on further review, his congressional campaign will refund the money to his state campaign, which can give it to other candidates or charities, or refund it to donors.

A spokeswoman for the FEC, which regulates contributions to federal candidates, said in an email that the agency doesn’t comment on specific candidates or situations.

But the FEC’s campaign guide states that candidates for Congress “may not accept funds or assets transferred from a committee established by the same candidate for a non-federal election campaign.”

Even if the FEC allowed such contributions between their federal and state campaign committees, Ritter said Georgia’s ethics laws would apply.

“If the contributions were received originally for a Georgia campaign, then Georgia law governs who those contributions can be given to,” said Ritter, whose commission is formally called the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

In disclosures, Loudermilk listed two $1,000 contributions from his state Senate account to the congressional account in January 2014. Graves listed $1,000 contributions from his Georgia House account to his congressional campaign in 2009 and 2010. And Scott listed closing out his state House account by giving $3,571 to his congressional campaign in 2010.

Scott spokeswoman Ryann R. DuRant said the transaction was an “administrative error” and that the funds were never received or deposited into his federal campaign coffers.

“It is clear there was an administrative error, and Austin will work to correct it by filing the necessary amendments with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission as soon as he’s able to return home and review the records,” DuRant said in a statement to the AJC.

Loudermilk campaign spokesman Dan McLagan said, “Contributions like this were widely believed to be allowed at the time, and we run these thing through a lot of smart people.”

“If it was not allowed, we will happily donate the money to a charity,” he added.

Garrett Hawkins, a spokesman for Graves, said: “The campaign has always employed third-party professionals to review and manage compliance with campaign finance law. To resolve any question about the two contributions from over six years ago, the campaign will happily donate the total amount to charity.”

William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs said he expects a complaint will be filed over the contributions, giving the state ethics commission a chance to consider the issue.

“This is further proof that so many of those serving in the Legislature don’t seem to feel our state campaign finance laws apply to them,” Perry said. “The bar of campaign finance ethics in Georgia is already so low, one merely has to trip over the bar to avoid breaking the law. It seems the congressmen tunneled under that bar of ethics that’s lying on the ground.”

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