AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Ruling in Oxendine case could have chilling effect on ethics investigations

When state ethics commission staffers audited former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine's 2010 gubernatorial campaign records after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report earlier this year, they found what they considered to be about two dozen new violations of the law.

Those included about 20 instances in which commission staffers said Oxendine took campaign contributions above the legal limit.

Instead of filing a new complaint against Oxendine, they tacked the new charges onto an old, unresolved case that began in 2009. Oxendine's lawyer, Douglas Chalmers, argued that they did so because the statute of limitations had run out on those alleged violations, meaning the staff couldn't file another complaint now on newly discovered violations dating back to 2009 and 2010.

Commission staffers responded that in the course of investigating an ethics complaint, the state is allowed to add violations they find to that complaint, something that is fairly common. But the commission ruled Wednesday that in the case of the 20 allegedly illegal contributions from Oxendine's failed 2010 bid, Chalmers was right: the statute of limitations, which at that point he said was one year after the alleged violations occurred, had run out.

So the commission dismissed that part of the case against Oxendine.

"It could effect many cases," said Stefan Ritter, the commission's executive director. "Right now,  I don’t know the full effect of it based on the cases that are out there."

For those who don't know the story, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Oxendine 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.

Oxendine led the polls throughout much of the 2010 Republican primary race before fading to fourth. He collected about $750,000 in contributions for the runoff and general elections.

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 he never ran and of accepting more than the legal limit in contributions from 19 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 amended campaign disclosure says all “investments” were returned in October.

The ruling in the Oxendine case could kill several other cases pending before the commission.

Commission Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow, acknowledged as much, telling the attorney who investigated the Oxendine case, Robert Lane, that the ruling, "might make your (case) backlog shorter."

Lane said the statute of limitations is now five years. But the ruling calls into question what happens to cases dating back to 2010 that involve the commission staff discovering violations after the one-year statute of limitations Chalmers said was then in place. In other words, if a candidate took illegal contributions in 2010 and an initial complaint was filed in 2011,  the ethics commission staff would have little time to audit reports and add charges relating to what they found before the statute of limitations ran out.

While the media may discover and report violations in those races, the ruling may mean there is little the commission can do about it.

For the newly rejuvenated commission and its staff, it doesn't help that the panel went through several years of in-fighting, finger-pointing and whistle-blower lawsuits, a period when little in the way of actual investigating and prosecuting was going on.

Chalmers has already told the commission that he may take what's left of the Oxendine case to Superior Court. Commission staff indicated they could appeal the commission's ruling on the contributions as well.

Meanwhile, the commission has the option of filing a new complaint, based on the fact that Oxendine misreported what he had  left over in his campaign account for several years, and that he loaned the money - which didn't show up in reports until Oct. 30 - to his law firm.  Under state law, candidates can't convert campaign contributions to personal use.






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About the Author

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