Abrams Probe Highlights Wide Reach Of State Ethics Commission

Jun 5, 2019

A Georgia government agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws is drawing scrutiny for how it is investigating former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

Lawyers for Abrams say the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission didn’t follow its own rules in its investigation, including when it issued subpoenas in April to the campaign and a number of independent advocacy groups that supported Abrams.

However, an analysis of documents obtained by GPB News and a review of state law and rules governing the commission suggest the agency is within the bounds of the law in how it is asking for information, even if the investigation might eventually be found fruitless.

Last week, the Abrams campaign handed over 3,632 pages of financial records to the state ethics commission.

That was in response to one of nine subpoenas seeking a range of things, including communications between the political advocacy groups and Abrams' campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo.

The ethics commission alleges illegal coordination between the Abrams campaign and four outside organizations: PowerPAC, Care In Action, Higher Heights and Gente4Abrams.

Groh-Wargo called the investigation a fishing expedition that is targeting minority-focused groups.

“When they issued this subpoena they asked for a whole wide-ranging set of documents without following their own rules on offering a factual basis for why they were doing this investigation and why they needed these documents,” Groh-Wargo said. “Despite that, we turned over banking records that they requested – every single copy of every single check and contracts they requested with credit card processors."

She called the subpoenas “nakedly political” with no factual basis. Letters to the commission reviewed by GPB News from Abrams’ lawyers also argue that the commission failed to follow its rules for opening an investigation and sharing probable cause for the allegations.

But, according to state law, the ethics commission is following the rules.

Rick Thompson, former head of the ethics commission during former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue’s administration, said in terms of procedure, the subpoenas are above board.

“The commission has the broad scope and ability to initiate complaints, follow up on complaints as well as to issue subpoenas because this is an administrative investigation,” Thompson said. “So the law is very broad and it gives general authority to the commission to issue subpoenas.”

While Thompson said the commission has wide latitude in how it investigates, he added it seemed rare to issue so many subpoenas during the preliminary investigation. That’s because the preliminary investigation is the time when the commission determines whether there is grounds to continue digging into potential violations.

State law and commission rules say an ethics investigation can start two ways: Someone outside a political campaign can lodge a complaint, or the ethics commission can start one on their own, once it notifies the accused of probable cause.

The Abrams campaign says the commission failed to do the latter with its investigation.

But, in a May 3 letter to the Abrams campaign reviewed by GPB News, commission Executive Secretary David Emadi said the subpoenas flowed from an older ethics complaint filed last year, one of four currently open against the campaign (and part of 199 total cases currently open with the ethics commission).

That complaint also alleges Abrams illegally coordinated with an advocacy group, something the campaign also denies.

A May 10 “Notice of Additional Allegations” letter sent by the commission outlines the four new allegations that the campaign accepted campaign contributions above the maximum limit.

By a quirk of state rules, since the new allegations are rooted in that old investigation, the commission is not required to elaborate on the new subpoenas and allegations beyond serving them to the Abrams camp.

In an emailed statement, commission head David Emadi said he could not comment on active investigations and reiterated that the commission follows all state laws and rules. Emadi also said that every candidate for governor is under investigation, and that the ethics commission would be moving forward with all investigations "irrespective of who was involved." 

And whether the subpoenas are warranted by facts on the ground?

“Time will tell whether or not the commission staff had enough evidence to warrant even issuing subpoenas, or whether it was a fishing expedition,” former ethics chief Rick Thompson said.

The full scope of the investigation will not be made clear until it is put before a meeting of the full ethics commission. The next meeting of the commission is June 27

6/5/19 7:55 p.m. Editor's note: this story was updated to clarify how many subpoenas were issued, why the ethics commisison says they were issued and when the ethics commission notified the campaign of new allegations.