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Crawford: Is The Ox already in the ditch?
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In the early polling among Georgia Republicans, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has consistently been leading in the race for governor.

The man who calls himself "The Ox" appears to believe that he has the GOP nomination locked up. His recent media statements have focused on the Democratic frontrunner, former Gov. Roy Barnes. These attacks include an Internet video that revives the old "King Rat" theme used by Sonny Perdue against Barnes in the 2002 race for governor.

You never hear Oxendine mention that the primary is nine months away and that he is facing opposition there from credible candidates like Nathan Deal, Eric Johnson and Karen Handel.

Is Oxendine’s early lead really so strong that he can start concentrating on the general election? New developments over the past couple of weeks suggest that maybe it isn’t.

For one thing, there was bad news for Oxendine last week at the offices of the State Ethics Commission. The commission for several months has been looking into questionable contributions that Oxendine received from insurance companies his office regulates. The insurance firms sent the money to political action committees based in Alabama that in turn made contributions to Oxendine.

Oxendine returned the $120,000 in suspect donations several months ago and had hoped the Ethics Commission would dismiss the case. Instead, the commissioners voted unanimously last week to expand the investigation by seeking more information from the insurance companies and the PACs.

As they discussed the matter, Ethics Commission members were openly skeptical of statements that the Oxendine campaign did not know the money contributed by insurance companies had gone through the PACs and then into his campaign coffers.

"To me, there’s a lot of smoke here," Commission Chairman Bill Jordan said.

Here’s the problem for Oxendine: Georgia law prohibits state officials from receiving political contributions from companies they regulate. Was the transfer of money from the insurance companies to the PACs and then to Oxendine an attempt to circumvent the law?

Commission counsel Tom Plank said the staff had not found "direct evidence" that Oxendine knew the money from the PACs had originally been contributed by insurance companies.

"There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that perhaps he should have known," Plank said. He noted that the PACs shared the same address, were headed by a man who with a long relationship with Oxendine, and sent checks to the campaign all cut on Dec. 31.

Oxendine’s attorney, Stefan Passantino, argued that "there are no facts here, there is speculation."

"Just because they (the PACs) had a common treasurer doesn’t mean they’re a common entity," Passantino said. "It is perfectly legal for that fact-pattern to occur ... there’s no evidence that the campaign knew about that."

The commissioners were not buying that argument and voted to continue looking into the Oxendine contributions. That means the investigation could continue to the end of the year and possibly longer, with the commission handing down an embarrassing ruling just as Oxendine is trying to shift his primary campaign into top gear.

It is a ticking time bomb that could explode at a very awkward time for the insurance commissioner.

Oxendine also has some family issues that may cause problems. His father, Jim Oxendine, prematurely retired as a senior Superior Court judge in Gwinnett County after the other judges learned the elder Oxendine had been involved in negotiating a land deal. Judges aren’t supposed to practice law on the side.

The land transaction is one of several under review by a special grand jury that is trying to determine if county tax dollars were used to buy property from politically connected landowners. One of the other players in the controversial Gwinnett land dealings is county Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, who just happens to work for John Oxendine’s insurance department.

Add all of this up and it may turn out that John Oxendine’s quest for the highest statewide office is not going to be the easy stroll he thought it would be.

There are unresolved issues out there that Oxendine’s opponents can use to bash him in a primary — and even more so in a general election.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report.

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