The state ethics commission also dismissed four additional complaints against the Republican governor, including a charge raising questions about how Deal’s campaign paid for private aircraft use when he was co-owner of North Georgia Aviation. Another had charged that he improperly used funds from his gubernatorial campaign to pay legal fees stemming from a federal probe relating to his term as a U.S. congressman.
Deal attorney Randy Evans said the governor was “held to the highest possible standard” by the ethics commission through a “cooperative but contentious process.”
“The laws need to be updated,” Evans said. “It’s really hard to take rules that were drafted in 2008, 2009 and apply them to campaigns today.”
A commission investigation concluded that the law on the aircraft fees issue was vague, and staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein said she did not feel a violation of the rules had occurred. The complaints filed in October 2010 by ethics watchdog George Anderson of Rome initially raised 14 instances of potential violations, but a more thorough investigation by commission staff found a total of 53 violations, which they labeled “technical defects.” The commission imposed an administrative fee of $50 per error to cover the cost of making corrections.
The commission split 3-1 in its decision to dismiss the complaint related to Deal’s legal fees. At issue was whether the legal work prompted by the investigation was tied to his gubernatorial campaign. Deal attorney Randy Evans argued that if Deal had not run for governor, the issue would have been dropped when he left Congress.
“It’s very reasonable to conclude that the fees incurred were in connection to then-candidate Deal’s run for governor,” Chairman Kevin Abernethy said.
Murray-Obertein told commissioners she reached a different conclusion about at least part of the legal fees. She explained legal fees stemming from four depositions of people who knew facts related to the federal investigation in October and December 2009 paid for with funds from the gubernatorial campaign “would be inappropriate.”
Deal announced in March 2010 that he was resigning from Congress to focus on his run for governor, and he was elected that November.
Evans told commissioners Monday the campaign was forced to make real-time interpretations of vague rules.
“It is undisputed that we don’t know where the boundary is,” Evans said. “The candidate relied on the advice of counsel. Was this fully disclosed? Yes, at every step. There was never any effort to conceal how much was being spent.”
Under consent agreements reached, commission staff found one complaint was based on Deal’s campaign either leaving blank or incorrectly listing employers in relation to campaign staff.
Another complaint, filed in October 2010 by Kimberlyn Carter, alleged Deal accepted campaign donations that exceeded limits for political contributions. Deal refunded $130,000 of those contributions before the election. A commission staff investigation concluded that two contributions were improperly designated as general election campaign donations that should have gone toward his primary runoff election fund.
Evans called the matter “just a bookkeeping error.” Deal did not attend Monday’s five-hour hearing, as he was traveling to Switzerland as part of an economic development mission.
The consent orders will be made public after they have been signed by both parties. Cases are available for public review after they are closed.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said he was surprised by how quickly the complaints were resolved, given that some date back two years.
“The one test that wasn’t applied was common sense,” Perry said after the hearing. “Whether it’s a weakness in our laws or a weakness in this decision, I really think it’s dangerous to not let these things go forward for an administrative hearing. Today ends up causing more questions than giving us answers.”