State panel clears Perdue of ethics charges

ATLANTA - The State Ethics Commission on Thursday dismissed three complaints against Gov. Sonny Perdue filed by Georgia's Democratic chairman stemming from 2002 campaign advertising.

Commissioners unanimously rejected two complaints by Bobby Kahn that TV ads run by Perdue's campaign were funded by illegal contributions from the state Republican Party.

But the five-member panel was closely divided over whether the GOP's financing of a mailing on Perdue's behalf was within the law, defeating by one vote a motion to hold another hearing on the complaint.

"It's a close issue,'' said commission Chairman Steve Farrow, one of two commissioners who voted to keep the case alive.

The first two complaints arose from a provision in state election law that exempts advertising that benefits a "group'' of candidates from campaign-contribution limits that apply to single candidates.

Kahn charged that Republicans broke that law with a series of TV ads that mentioned Perdue throughout and only added the name of Steve Stancil, the GOP's candidate for lieutenant governor, in a "tag line'' at the end.

"The ads in substance only urge the election of Gov. Perdue,'' said Michael Jablonski, the lawyer representing the Democrats.

Jablonski said Republicans also claimed in those ads that they were being paid for by the party when records indicated they were financed by the Perdue campaign.

The third complaint charged that Republicans attempted to portray a mailing on behalf of then-challenger Perdue as "issue advocacy,'' advertising that does not expressly urge the election of a specific candidate, when in reality it was doing just that by attacking then-Gov. Roy Barnes by name and calling for a change in state government.

"Once you start with language like, 'You should change' during a political campaign ... there's no question the mailing is a political mailing,'' Jablonski said.

But Perdue's lawyer, Randy Evans, said the mailing was an issue ad under the federal and state laws in effect during the 2002 race because it never mentioned Perdue by name or used words like "elect'' or "vote against.''

At the time, issue ads were not subject to campaign contribution limits, although the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently overturned that interpretation of the law.

"You may say to yourself, 'That seems like an unreasonable test,''' Evans told the commission. "But that's what the law was at the time.''

Ann Lewis, the lawyer representing the Republican Party, said the mailing also qualified as an issue ad because Perdue and the GOP did not work together on it. The law, as it stood in 2002, required that issue ads not be coordinated between the candidate and the entity paying the bill.

"The party sent out this mailer,'' Lewis said. "The governor did not coordinate it with the party.''

On the first two complaints, Evans argued that the TV ads were not subject to contribution limits because the legal definition of "group'' is "two or more,'' in this case, Perdue and Stancil.

In a separate case, the commission also dismissed a series of complaints filed against Perdue by citizen watchdog George Anderson.

The complaints accused the governor's campaign of failing to provide complete information on a number of contributions and expenditures.

Teddy Lee, the commission's executive secretary, said the most substantial element of the case was a bonus of $6,300 Perdue paid out of campaign funds to campaign manager Nick Ayers in 2004, two years after the election.

Evans said he deserved the money because he did a good job.

"This is a fully employed campaign manager who got a bonus at the end of the year, which was disclosed for all the world to see,'' Evans said. "To keep good employees, you have to give bonuses for good performance.''