In State Ethics Probe, Stacey Abrams’ Former Campaign Withholds Emails, Hands Over Bank Documents

The Abrams campaign sent more than 3,600 pages of financial records to state ethics officials.

Seth Wenig / Associated Press

A lawyer for the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Stacey Abrams informed the head of the Georgia Ethics Commission on Friday that the campaign would not fully respond to a subpoena sent in April.

The subpoena says the campaign may have accepted donations from organizations exceeding the maximum contribution for a statewide election contest.

The Abrams campaign sent more than 3,600 pages of financial records to state ethics officials. But it withheld nineteen emails, according to a letter attached to the campaign’s response to David Emadi, the executive secretary of the ethics commission hired in April.

The subpoena asked for banking records beginning in May of 2018, as well as communications between the Abrams campaign and organizations that advocate for people of color and often encourage them to vote.

It also requested communications between the campaign, and state Sen. Nikema Williams, the current head of the Democratic Party of Georgia. In 2018, during the campaign for governor, Williams was first vice-chair of the state party.

Specifically, the Abrams campaign withheld nine campaign emails “involving” the civil rights organization called the New Georgia Project, and 10 emails “involving” Williams.

“The Subpeona is conspicuously over broad without a factual context for the requests,” wrote Abrams campaign lawyer Joyce Gist Lewis.

“Demanding that the Abrams campaign identify and produce ‘all communications’ months following the certification of the election results is unreasonable and extraordinary,” Gist Lewis wrote. “Especially where, as here, the Commission has declined to explain how these requests are related to its investigation.”

In her letter, Gist Lewis denies the Abrams campaign violated campaign finance laws.

State Sen. Williams is a founder and state director of Care in Action, one of the organizations included in the subpoena. On its website, Care in Action describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan group advocating for domestic workers.

A New York Times article published the day before the 2018 general election highlighted Care in Action’s efforts to encourage low-income, women of color to vote.

Care in Action canvassers, according to the article, had texted every female registered voter of color in Georgia.

It was one of many organized efforts during the 2018 midterms encouraging people of color, and people with low incomes to vote. These are demographics groups that, at least historically, have been less likely to vote in Georgia and the U.S. at large, although those trends may be shifting.

Some organizations mentioned in the subpoena sent to the Abrams campaign include: Gente4Abrams, the New Georgia Project (which Abrams founded, but left ahead of the 2018 campaign), Engaged Georgia Action, PowerPac Georgia, and Higher Heights for Georgia.

“This move by Kemp’s so-called ‘ethics’ commissioner is an unprecedented abuse of power against his political opponent and specifically targeting organizations that engage voters of color,” said Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo on Twitter earlier this week. “These intimidation tactics will not stand.”

“The Commission is focused on fairly and impartially investigating all cases and that remains our only concern,” said Emadi, the executive secretary of the state ethics commission, in a statement. “Any allegations of partisanship are unfortunate and have no place in the discourse of campaign finance laws.”

Emadi was hired as the executive secretary of the state ethics commission in April, leaving a job in the Douglas County attorney general’s office.

According to Emadi’s LinkedIn page, he was previously a legal aide to Georgia’s Republican House Speaker, David Ralston, one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

Ahead of a Republican primary runoff, now Governor Brian Kemp shared an endorsement from Emadi on Twitter, and Emadi made campaign contributions to multiple GOP candidates in 2018, including donations to Kemp totaling $600.

Emadi replaced Stefan Ritter as executive secretary in April.

Ritter resigned earlier in the year after he was accused of using a state computer to watch pornography while on the job.

In a complaint dated December 18, 2018, an ethics commission staffer wrote that she and another colleague informed Mr. Ritter that following an audit of “the Abrams and Kemp campaign and any associated non-candidate committees” they had found evidence of “several violations by the Abrams campaign.”

The staffer said Mr. Ritter told them not to proceed with any subpoenas until he could meet with the candidates to discuss their campaign filings.

The subpoenas from the ethics commission since Emadi was hired are apparently stemming not from audits, but from a complaint filed with the commission against Abrams in July, 2018, according to the Abrams campaign.