State Ethics Commission Sues Abrams Campaign For Withholding Emails

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission filed a lawsuit on Friday against Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign and two other groups tied to Abrams.

John Amis / Associated Press

Updated at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 27

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, formerly the state Ethics Commission, filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court on Friday against Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign and two other groups tied to Abrams for failing to fully comply with subpoenas for certain documents last spring.

Former campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said the campaign turned in thousands of pages of banking and campaign finance records but refused to release communications requested between the campaign and other groups, including the New Georgia Project and state Sen. Nikema Williams, then vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“The commission is responsible for campaign finance law here in Georgia. They’re able to investigate campaigns,” she said. “What they’re not able to do is use their power to investigate, to harass, to intimidate and go, on a hunch, that they think a thing may have happened…this commission is in violation of its fundamental right to enforce campaign finance law and is acting as a political arm of the governor’s campaign.”

She called the investigation a “political fishing expedition” due to the executive director of the commission David Emadi’s previous endorsement of Gov. Brian Kemp. Emadi also donated to Kemp’s campaign.

Emadi said in a statement the commission is “taking the same legal measures we have taken in all other cases where the respondent has refused to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas. We will allow the legal pleading to speak for itself.”

He called Groh-Wargo’s comments “baseless allegations by political operatives” and said the commission is committed “to conducting a full and fair investigation into all candidates from the 2018 gubernatorial campaign as a nonpartisan body just as we do in all other cases.”

The Fulton County Superior Court filing says that Charles T. Wingo filed a complaint with the commission in August 2018, alleging “unlawful coordination” by sharing personnel between the Abrams campaign and the B.L.U.E. Institute, which was founded by Abrams to recruit people of color to political campaign staff.

The document also states the commission “has reason to believe” that a donation to the New Georgia Project was used throughout the 2018 election “to make independent expenditures that expressly advocated election or defeat of Stacey Abrams.” Abrams also founded and ran the New Georgia Project, aimed at registering minorities to vote. The motion states the “crux of the investigation” is whether the Abrams campaign itself coordinated with the New Georgia Project about these alleged expenditures.

Groh-Wargo denied all allegations in the motion and said the commission staff held two days of in-person inspections of the campaign’s records. She said the campaign refused to release the “unremarkable” communications to avoid setting a “terrible precedent” for other campaigns in the future.

“Does this mean that in the campaign next year that the commission can go ask for all the private emails between any Democrat who’s challenging a Republican in office? Does this mean that when Brian Kemp is up for reelection that this commission can start asking for private emails during a campaign from his opponent?” she said. “This investigation is outrageous and an abuse of power.”

Groh-Wargo suggested the reason for the investigation has to do with the fact that the 2018 election saw unprecedented interest and funding from outside groups, something typical in other states but new to Georgia.

“I’m not convinced that the commission understands what campaigns look like in contemporary Georgia. And the fact that there are outside groups that have had previous relationships with candidates is very typical and is normal,” she said. “And this commission has decided that by the very existence of mainly African American- and Latino-led and focused organizations, must mean that there’s some sort of larger conspiracy.”

Emadi declined to address these “baseless allegations.”

Jake Evans, chair of the state commission, has had no involvement with the details of the investigation but said in his role he has “emphasized that operating with utmost fairness, integrity and impartiality is imperative. secretary Emadi shares these sentiments, and I have no doubt they will be carried out in all investigations, including this one.”

Update: Stacey Abrams’ campaign says they’ve already turned over thousands of documents and that the communications are irrelevant. They’re asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. The campaign filed their response Nov. 27.