Like the ghost of elections past, the name of former state insurance commissioner and gubernatorial candidate John Oxendine reemerged from a wall of political irrelevance last week with the announcement by the state ethics commission that it is again committed to investigating some of the unresolved complaints lodged against him.
At issue is whether Oxendine, after a failed bid for the governor’s office, inappropriately converted campaign donations to his personal use, such as making a down payment on his home, leasing automobiles and paying for child care.
Oxendine’s critics say he took some $200,000 in leftover campaign money and used it for personal expenses, which would be illegal. Oxendine and his attorney say the money was invested in his law practice in the form of a loan, which they believe is legal under state campaign finance laws.
The Oxendine saga is one that is torturously long and has been the subject of multiple complaints and investigations, some of which have been dismissed then renewed. We won’t offer an opinion on the validity of the accusation, beyond saying Oxendine the politician never ranked very high on the personal credibility scale.
A bigger issue at this point is the state agency responsible for looking into the accusations against Oxendine, and a long history of questionable activities and poor performance related to it.
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You need look no further than the fact that the complaint against the former insurance commissioner is based on his activities as a candidate for governor in 2010 to realize there’s a problem within the ethics office. When a former candidate is still awaiting a resolution to campaign finance issues that are nearly 10 years old, there’s a problem.
Oxendine referred to the investigatory body as “probably the most troubled and disorganized state agency in modern history,” and in that one regard he may be right. The state’s ethics commission, officially titled the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, has a troubled past and an impotent track record.
Given that the agency is supposed to monitor the activities of the very politicians who create and fund it, is not particularly surprising that it hasn’t done a lot of exceptional work on the ethics front in the past.
None of which is to cast aspersions on the current composition of the board or its executive director. The ethics commission seems to be recreated every few years with new personnel and promises of advocacy on behalf of policing campaigns, so we can’t put the blame for its past on the current decision makers.
The body has five members, all appointed by state politicians — three by the governor, one by the speaker of the House and one by a committee of the Senate. So a lack of political independence is not surprising. It also has an executive director, who is the point person for most of its work, and a staff that is much too small and underfunded to handle its workload.
The current executive director, David Emaldi, has only been on the job since April, so it’s too soon to say what sort of job he will do. He is a former assistant district attorney, which would seem to suggest a skill set that would be of value in the job. But he also worked briefly as an aide to House Speaker David Ralston, has been active in Republican Party politics and was a small financial donor to Brian Kemp’s campaign, so he has political ties, though it is naïve to think anyone appointed to such a position would not. We’ll know more about him after a round of state elections, though Emaldi hit the ground running by announcing an investigation into the campaign of Stacey Abrams, which immediately resulted in complaints of partisanship from some corners.
With an election year on the horizon, we look forward to seeing how he handles a difficult job and are more than willing to give him an opportunity to prove himself. His predecessor, Stefan Ritter, resigned amid allegations of misusing state computers by accessing porn while on the job. Prior to Ritter, the director was Holly LaBerge, who was caught up in the controversy of a “whistleblower” lawsuit filed by her predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, who a jury found was forced out of office because of an investigation she undertook into the 2010 campaign of former Gov. Nathan Deal.
Just to keep the scorecard straight, we are on the fourth director of the agency since the 2010 election, so it’s no wonder the agency is less than efficient.
But then it always has been because it’s designed to be. The politicians elected to govern the state do not want an efficient, independent agency poking its nose into allegations of campaign finance abuse, so they pay lip service to the idea with an underfunded, understaffed operation with little real power that more often than not allows complaints to linger for months and years until they are forgotten or irrelevant, and resolves them with a slap on the wrist and an admonition to do better next time.
And so, 10 years later, we still await a final resolution to the complaint against the former candidate for governor, and will wait and see if the newest in a long line of executive directors of the ethics commission working in conjunction with the current group of political appointees will put some real teeth into campaign financial law enforcement and punishment for offenders. But we won’t be holding our breath.
It would be nice to think candidates truly concerned about reforming campaign laws in Georgia could win election next year and make a difference at the state Capitol with legislation to create an independent ethics commission, tight deadlines for investigating complaints and stiff penalties for campaign law violations, but the odds of that happening are about the same as Oxendine having a formal repayment plan for the “loan” from his campaign to his law firm.