Senate hopeful stirs up flap with Perdue

ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue should refund contributions left over from his successful re-election campaign or give the money to charity, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Dale Cardwell said Monday.

But the Republican governor's former campaign manager said Perdue was within his legal rights under Georgia's Ethics in Government Act to use those funds to create a political action committee.

At issue is a finance report filed by the governor's 2006 campaign last week reporting that he had transferred nearly $800,000 in unspent funds to a PAC he formed last spring.

Cardwell, who is seeking his party's nomination for the Senate next year, went after Perdue in an indirect attack on incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

The former Atlanta TV reporter declared his candidacy last month, vowing not to accept PAC money. He said well-heeled PACs give special-interest groups undue influence over politicians, at the expense of average voters.

"PACs are the silent, behind-the-scenes cancer that is destroying our state and local governments," Cardwell said during a news conference at the Capitol. "PACs have all but replaced our system of one person, one vote."

Cardwell blamed the influence of PACs on Chambliss and other members of Congress for driving the recent push for immigration reform, which went up in smoke last month when the Senate refused to bring the bill up for a final vote.

"PACs leaned on Washington's professional politicians ... to create an amnesty bill, a bill that would ensure that corporations that funded those PACs would continue to have access to cheap, illegal labor," Cardwell said.

Chambliss spokeswoman Lindsay Mabry said the senator would not respond to Cardwell's charges.

In questioning the legality of using excess campaign money to create a PAC, Cardwell cited a news story from 2000 that reported a warning by the ethics commission that it is illegal for candidates for state office to give funds contributed to their campaigns to a PAC.

But Nick Ayers, Perdue's former campaign manager and now executive director of the Republican Governors Association, pointed to an advisory opinion published by the State Ethics Commission in April stating that contributing to nonprofit organizations is a legally permissible use of excess campaign money.

Perdue's PAC has registered with the Secretary of State's office as a nonprofit.

"We took that advisory opinion and followed it exactly," Ayers said.

Rick Thompson, the commission's executive secretary, said the agency's staff asked for the opinion after the issue of what candidates could do with leftover campaign funds came up in connection with several cases unrelated to the governor.

"You can't give to a PAC on its own," Thompson said. "But if the PAC is a nonprofit, it's a different animal. ... We wanted everybody to be 100 percent clear on what the law is."

Perdue has not said how the PAC will spend the money.