Georgia Ethics Committee dusts off probe into spending of nonprofits founded by Abrams
The state Ethics Commission on Monday found probable cause that two nonprofit voting rights groups founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams illegally aided her in her first run for office. governor in 2018.
The state’s Open Government and Campaign Finance Commission moved the investigation into the New Georgia Project and the New Georgia Project Action Fund forward after Monday’s preliminary hearing. The nonprofits are accused of circumventing financial disclosure laws by spending money on campaign flyers and election campaigns, which would have required them to file reports with the commission on 4, $2 million in contributions and $3 million in expenditures between 2017 and 2019.
Lawyers representing voting rights groups said on Monday that the organizations’ behavior was typical of other nonprofits and that ethics agency investigations failed to prove that the organizations intended to influence voters.
Monday marked the latest development in the extensive investigation in Abrams by a Republican-majority council that can impose a steep fine after finding reasonable grounds that voting advocacy groups violated the law. Abrams’ camp called the investigations politically motivated as she heads into the November election against GOP Gov. Brian Kemp.
Banking records for two organizations were obtained through subpoenas in late 2019. The investigation began shortly after the Ethics Commission hired former Douglas County prosecutor and Kemp donor, David Emadi, as Executive Secretary.
Among the expenses, $36,000 was paid to a printing company to produce door knockers listing a list of Democratic candidates to vote for in 2018.
And the action fund should have brought in $4.2 million in 2018, a time when canvassers were paid to encourage people to vote for Abrams, according to the complaint.
“Under Georgian law, it’s clear that if you’re for a penny, you’re for a pound,” Emadi said during Monday’s hearing. “If an organization is an independent committee, it must disclose all money coming in and out of that organization during the election period.”
Get morning headlines delivered to your inbox
More than 500,000 Georgia voters have registered since Abrams launched the New Georgia Project in 2014. Affiliated nonprofits pursue a mission to boost voter engagement and protect voter rights. The organization primarily focuses on underrepresented and historically disadvantaged eligible voters, especially blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and youth.
“They are not performed for the primary purpose of electing or appointing candidates for office,” said Aria C. Branch, the class attorney.
Branch, however, said the solicitation was part of an agreement to contract its staff with an independent committee.
The action fund reimbursed canvassers’ fees that were originally paid to the New Georgia account. The nonprofits were engaged in activities similar to a museum having a gift shop or renting space for weddings, Branch said.
“In this case, Georgia Project Action Fund has expertise in canvassing black voters and disadvantaged communities in Georgia and he was hired for that purpose,” she said.
“Our position is that the banking records that were obtained by the commission and our amended complaint do in fact support the relationship with the supplier and that suppliers are not required by law to register or hold themselves out as independent or campaign committees,” Branch said.
Some commissioners said that although they voted to move past the preliminary hearing stage, they had questions about the ethics commission wading through deals like typical commercial subcontracts. Changing from a charity to a campaign group would also mean that donors cannot remain anonymous.
“I share some of Commissioner (Rick) Thompson’s concerns about the slippery slope,” said commissioner David Burge. “I think this is a matter that will need to be explored further in another forum.”
Branch said affiliated nonprofits often share staff and offices but are treated as separate entities under the law.
“There’s nothing wrong with the fact that these refunds happened, it’s really for administrative convenience when you’re running affiliated nonprofits,” she said.