Lawyers argue technical issues in elections case

ATLANTA - A Gwinnett County political operative is being prosecuted for campaign violations in the wrong place and under an improper indictment, lawyers argued before the state Supreme Court on Monday.

Bill McKinney and co-defendant Nancy Walter, who died last December, are the first defendants to be criminally prosecuted under Georgia's Ethics in Government Act.

They were indicted in connection with a stealth campaign waged last year against Gwinnett County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly.

The two are charged with failing to register as a campaign committee, an organization accused of videotaping Kenerly gambling with developers in Las Vegas and sending out copies of the DVDs anonymously.

Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Melodie Snell Conner last year upheld the prosecution's decision to try the case in Gwinnett.

But Monday, J. Tom Morgan, representing Walter, argued that the case belongs in Fulton County, where the State Ethics Commission is located, because that is where papers registering campaign committees are supposed to be filed.

"(Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter) has always been known to plow new ground,'' Morgan said. "In this case, he's plowing the wrong field.''

But Porter told the justices where the ethics commission is physically located is irrelevant because the agency now accepts documents filed electronically.

"In this day and age, there's no reason for a candidate ... to actually drive to Atlanta to file,'' he said.

In another aspect of the case, Jerome Froelich Jr., McKinney's lawyer, argued the indictment was improper because it failed to identify either McKinney or Walter as the chairman or treasurer of the campaign committee.

Froelich said the Ethics in Government Act is too vague to be enforceable in that it lacks any definition of chairman or treasurer. Thus, any member of a campaign committee - no matter their level of involvement - could be charged for violating the law, he said.

But Porter said it was clear from the facts of the case McKinney was acting like a chairman by directing the committee's activities, while Walter was making bank deposits for the committee, as any treasurer would.

Porter said a jury should be free to determine whether the defendants' involvement with the committee rose to the level of criminal activity whether they had a title or not.

To read the law any other way would render it meaningless, he said.

"Any independent committee could avoid prosecution ... by not designating anyone as chairman,'' he said.

The justices did not indicate when the court will issue a ruling.