Buckhead resident Mary Norwood has been exonerated from an ethics complaint filed against her regarding the 2017 Atlanta mayoral election, but she will still have to pay $27,000 in fines stemming from some bookkeeping errors related to campaign contributions.
“I am pleased that the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (aka state ethics commission) yesterday unanimously approved a consent order disposing of the unwarranted ethics complaint filed against my campaign committee,” Norwood said in an Aug. 7 mass email. “This is the fourth time I have been exonerated from ethics complaints filed against me.”
David Emadi, the commission’s executive secretary, confirmed Norwood has paid the $27,000 in fines. Charlie Stadtlander, who worked as a senior advisor for the campaigns of both Norwood and her runoff opponent and winner, Keisha Lance Bottoms, in 2017, filed complaints against both candidates in December 2017, just before the runoff.
The investigation that followed the complaints alleged the candidates illegally received a combined $551,748 in over-the-limit donations during the campaign. According to letters the commission sent each candidate, Bottoms and Norwood are accused of going over the limit by $382,773 and $168,975, respectively.
Bottoms edged Norwood by about 820 votes in a campaign where the two candidates each received about $2 million in contributions. They advanced to the December runoff after leading a field of 10 candidates in the general election a month earlier.
Stadtlander, who first worked for Norwood, said he left her campaign and joined Bottoms’ after raising concerns about how Norwood ethically handled her campaign finances. He filed the complaint with the commission in December 2017, just before the runoff.
Stadtlander said Bottoms’ campaign, including an unknown lawyer hired by the campaign, helped him draft the complaint. But on election night, he said he learned that lawyer was Jeremy Berry, who at the time also was Atlanta’s city attorney. Since Berry’s involvement was considered a conflict of interest, in February or March 2018, Stadtlander asked the commission to have the complaint dismissed but it was not.
Norwood said during her mayoral campaign, she received 4,274 donations totaling over $2 million, and in those 4,274 contributions, some were multiple checks from the same supporters. Individual donors are allowed to contribute up to $2,600 in the general election and $1,400 in the runoff, but some gave more and were supposed to be refunded the difference.
“The campaign worked diligently to refund all excessive contributions that exceeded the maximum campaign limit, but a handful (15) were missed,” Norwood said. “They equal only 1.06% of all funds raised.”
According to the commission’s consent order announcing the complaint was dismissed, she was fined for two violations:
1. Improperly accepted $58,300 in campaign contributions which exceeded maximum campaign contribution limits when Respondent failed to elect separate accounting as per-mitted by O.C.G.A. § 21-5-43(a), a violation of O.C.G.A. §§ 21-5-41(b) and 21-5-43(a).
2. Improperly accepted $22,450 in campaign contributions which exceed maximum campaign contribution limits, a violation of O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41(b).
In an Aug. 11 interview, Norwood said there were three types of bookkeeping errors: a husband and wife with a joint account co-signing one check for a donation that was supposed to be from both but did not include with it an affidavit saying so, accepting contributions late in the campaign that exceeded the donation limit and not filing a form the city required but did not have listed in its election code book.
“They have seen that we did not know about (the form), but ignorance of the law is no excuse,” she said of the commission. “But they also saw in their due diligence that we followed all procedures. You are obligated to keep two sets of books: one for the money you receive in the general election and one for the runoff. We did not spend runoff money before the runoff and kept two sets of books.”
She said the form violation ($13,000) accounted for about three quarters of the errors, and the over-the-limit infraction ($14,000) represented the rest of them.
Emadi said the investigation into Bottoms’ campaign is still open and ongoing.
“We are confident we are in full compliance with all ethics rules and will provide requested documents to substantiate our compliance as appropriately requested,” Bottoms told the AJC in December.