Monday, May 17, 2010

Loophole lets legislators pocket $343K despite session ban

Georgia legislators cannot accept campaign contributions while they are in session. Except when they can.

Four lawmakers running for Congress collected more than $343,000 in campaign funds between them while the General Assembly was in session this year, federal campaign filings show.

State Rep. Clay Cox, seeking the seat being vacated by Congressman John Linder, led the pack with $114,712.

Cox was followed by:

Rep. Mike Keown, hoping to unseat Congressman Sanford Bishop, $110,035

ex-Rep. Tom Graves, seeking ex-Rep. Nathan Deal’s seat, $75,136

ex-Sen. Lee Hawkins, also seeking Deal’s seat, $43,739

Graves and Hawkins resigned from the Legislature March 23 so they could legally file qualification papers to run for Congress. Atlanta Unfiltered calculated their contributions from Jan. 11, the first day of the legislative session, through March 22.

Georgia’s Ethics in Government Act says:

§ 21-5-35. Acceptance of contributions or pledges during legislative sessions
(a) No member of the General Assembly or that member’s campaign committee or public officer elected state wide or campaign committee of such public officer shall seek or accept a contribution or a pledge of a contribution to the member, the member’s campaign committee, or public officer elected state wide, or campaign committee of such public officer during a legislative session.

A federal judge in 1996 struck down that application of that provision to federal candidates. U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt Jr. found that Georgia cannot regulate campaigns for federal office.

Hunt’s ruling was upheld on a 2-1 vote by a federal appellate panel later that year. You can read both sides of the decision here.

While the ruling allows a legislator to accept donations from lobbyists, it certainly does not require it. A lawmaker could just say no because it might look bad.

Cox, in particular, did not do that. From March 28-31, he took $12,700 in campaign cash from 18 lobbyists in Georgia, and about $10,000 more from executives of AT&T, the United Health Services hospital chain and prominent Gwinnett County businessmen Virgil Williams, John Stephens and Wayne Mason.

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