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Ethics panel clears Oxendine

DOUGLASVILLE - The State Ethics Commission Wednesday dismissed a complaint that Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine broke the law by using campaign funds to defend himself against prior ethics charges.

In rejecting the complaint, commissioners cited a ruling handed down in November that allowed state Sen. Bill Stephens, R-Canton, to spend $53,000 in campaign money on legal fees associated with ethics complaints that had been filed against him.

"It's hard for me to say these expenditures were a violation when we let Sen. Stephens walk at the last meeting,'' said commission Chairman Steve Farrow.

The complaint over legal fees was among a series of complaints against Oxendine, a Republican from Duluth, dismissed by the ethics panel Wednesday.

All were filed by George Anderson of Rome, a self-styled citizen watchdog who has filed numerous complaints against state elected officials during the last decade. Oxendine has been among his favorite targets.

Anderson also charged Oxendine with illegally transferring $5,500 from his insurance commissioner campaign fund into an account he established during a brief time in 2004 that he was a candidate for lieutenant governor.

He later withdrew from this year's lieutenant governor race and declared he would run for re-election to his current post instead.

Georgia law prohibits candidates from using money raised for one office to campaign for another.

Oxendine's lawyer, Stefan Passantino, didn't dispute the allegation. But he said Oxendine returned the money to his insurance commissioner campaign as soon as he discovered the transfer was illegal, in fact, before Anderson filed the complaint.

The commission also rejected six other complaints questioning whether various expenditures listed by Oxendine in campaign finance reports dating back to 1998 were for legitimate purposes under the law.

The list included money spent on rent at an apartment complex, one night's lodging at a downtown Atlanta hotel and even a towing bill.

A former campaign worker called by Passantino as a witness explained that the apartment was being used as a campaign headquarters and the towing bill was incurred by another worker on campaign business who parked in the wrong place.

As for the hotel stay, Oxendine took the stand and testified that he spent the night there after a late-night meeting with members of the Legislature's insurance committees.

But Commissioner David Moskowitz said the lodging and towing expenses looked questionable and should have been explained more fully on Oxendine's reports.

Both sides agreed, however, that Oxendine's use of more than $17,000 in campaign funds to pay legal fees was the most important issue at stake Wednesday.

Moskowitz, who also voted against dismissing the complaint against Stephens, was the only commissioner who argued that office holders using campaign money to defend themselves against ethics complaints should not be considered within the definition of "ordinary and necessary'' campaign expenses allowed by state law.

But Commissioner Sonny Watson said people who think enough of a candidate to give their money probably would support such a use.

"You get these frivolous ethics complaints filed against you, does this board think you should pay for it out of your own pocket?'' he asked.

For his part, Oxendine complained about the number of charges Anderson has lodged against him and other elected Republicans going all the way back to 1995, the year Oxendine took office.

Passantino pointed out that nothing came of the vast majority of those complaints.

But some of Anderson's charges managed to stick.

A year ago, the commission fined Oxendine $750 for several violations stemming from complaints filed by Anderson, including taking a campaign donation from an insurance company.