AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Oxendine legal bill climbing as he fights ethics charges, may be bad news for donors

Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine's legal bills are starting to mount as he finally gets his day before the ethics commission - and probably the courts - in hopes of fighting off a series of ethics charges filed against him over his handling of his failed 2010 campaign for governor.

That may be bad news for donors who hoped to get a refund on the $750,000 Oxendine raised for runoff and general election campaigns that he never ran in 2010.

Oxendine's end-of-the-year report showed the former commissioner's law firm paid his campaign back $237,000 that it had borrowed, plus about $8,800 of interest.

Oxendine paid or owed about $60,000 to his new lawyer, Doug Chalmers, by the end of the year. That is only expected to grow.

Previous reports showed Oxendine's campaign had spent less than $20,000 in recent years fighting a six-year-old ethics complaint accusing him of accepting $120,000 in illegal contributions from an insurance company during his 2010 race for governor.

Polls had Oxendine leading the Republican race in 2010, but he faded to fourth.

The commission tacked new charges onto the earlier complaint last fall after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the former commissioner failed to return more than $500,000 worth of leftover contributions from his gubernatorial bid and spent money raised for Republican runoff and general election campaigns that he never actually ran.

After the AJC report, ethics commission staffers filed an amended complaint against Oxendine accusing him of improperly spending more than $208,000 raised for the runoff and general elections and accepting more than the legal limit in contributions from about 20 donors.

A month later, Oxendine filed an amended report, showing that he actually had more than $723,000 left over in his campaign account, including a previously undisclosed $237,000 worth of "investments" in his law firm. His latest campaign disclosure says all "investments" were returned after the original AJC story about his campaign finances.

Under state law, candidates can't use campaign contributions for personal enrichment or use.

The ethics commission handed Oxendine a split decision in December, dismissing some of the complaints of illegal contributions because it said the statute of limitations barred the state from prosecuting the charges.

But the commission also decided to move ahead on charges that Oxendine spent more than $200,000 in 2010 runoff and general election contributions, despite the fact that he never ran those races. That keeps the complaint against Oxendine's handling of his 2010 gubernatorial race alive and means it won't be decided until 2016, at the earliest.

Both Chalmers, a leading campaign ethics lawyer who took over Oxendine's case last fall, and Stefan Ritter, executive director of the commission, have said they may appeal the commission's rulings to a Superior Court judge.

Oxendine, meanwhile, still had $682,000 left in his 2010 campaign account at the end of the year and he has promised to refund whatever is left over once his ethics case is decided. That could be a while, and good representation doesn't come cheap.






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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.