High Profile Candidates To See Extra Scrutiny From Ga. Ethics Office | WABE 90.1 FM

High Profile Candidates To See Extra Scrutiny From Ga. Ethics Office

Sep 25, 2017

In upcoming elections, Georgia's state ethics commission will audit the campaign fundraising reports of all major statewide candidates, according to its executive secretary Stefan Ritter.

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The commission has been working through a backlog of cases following multiple lawsuits from commission staff who said they were forced out for investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign.

Ritter said the commission has mostly worked through that backlog, and he’s looking at ways to improve its operation. The ethics office already audits a variety of candidates, but will now focus on all candidates for high-profile positions like governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, as well as Atlanta mayor.

"I think it will make them more attentive to the fact that they should not violate the law, or play too fast and loose,” Ritter said.

The ethics office often finds candidates who misuse campaign funds, Ritter said.  

"We've had politicians do, I think, somewhat outrageous things with their accounts from going to strip bars, to taking the money out for a variety of things,” he said.

The ethics office has a 17 person staff, Ritter said, and there are thousands of candidates around Georgia.

An investigation from the Georgia News Lab and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found problems with campaign filings from many statewide candidates in the 2006 and 2010 elections.

Georgia's ethics office usually starts reviewing candidate’s fundraising and spending after receiving a complaint.

But Catie Kelley, with the Campaign Legal Center, said relying on complaints can undermine the public's trust.

"The complaint process can be used for political purposes,” she said.

California is the only state that requires audits of fundraising and spending for certain candidates, according to Kelley.

Georgia doesn't have a law like that, but it’s important for voters to know the state's campaign finance laws are being enforced, Kelley said.  

"They want to know that these laws aren't just written down somewhere and forgotten, but that someone is actually making sure that there's compliance with the laws,” she said.

Georgia's ethics commission has some discretion over which cases it pursues, and Kelley said it can set a tone for what's acceptable when it comes to candidates and campaigns managing their money.