SAVANNAH, Ga. — Doubts have surfaced over whether big donations to congressional hopeful Wright McLeod came from the people he says they did.
The Augusta attorney is one of four Republicans vying for a chance to take on 12th District incumbent Democrat John Barrow. After boundary changes that favored Republicans and prompted Barrow to move from Savannah to Augusta, the 12th is up for grabs.
The campaign of another GOP contender, Augusta businessman Rick Allen, says it views several donations to McLeod of $2,500 – the most allowed by law – as “questionable.”
Allen campaign manager Scott Paradise raised the possibility that listed donors may have been reimbursed for checks they wrote. That practice, which is illegal, conceals the real source of the money and sometimes allows an end run around the $2,500 limit.
Meanwhile, a complaint by Allen against McLeod involving other issues is pending before the Federal Election Commission.
McLeod campaign manager Mike Allen said that, to the best of his knowledge, none of McLeod’s campaign cash is from anyone other than those listed as donors.
“Neither the campaign nor Wright McLeod has reimbursed any donor for their contributions,” he said. “If we had direct knowledge that a donor’s contribution was made in an illegal manner, we would take appropriate action in accordance with the FEC guidelines.”
But Mike Allen said the campaign has “no direct knowledge that any of our contributions are anything other than honorable, valid and made by our supporters of their own accord.”
So far, there’s no proof to the contrary.
However, some $2,500 donors are people of apparently limited means who had never before donated to a congressional campaign.
Two donors seemed to know little about McLeod’s views. Two gave on the same day after one of them said their boss, also a $2,500 donor, discussed the campaign with them.
One had voted only once. One wrote a check the same day her boss did. Other donors declined to be interviewed.
“I learned a long time ago that where there is smoke there is fire,” Paradise said, “and there is certainly a great deal of smoke surrounding Wright McLeod’s entire campaign.”
Official records show Brittany Best voted only in the 2008 general election and never gave to a federal or state-level campaign in Georgia until she gave McLeod $2,500.
Best, 24, is an executive assistant with Mullins Management in Evans. Her boss, Joe Mullins, gave McLeod $2,500 on Nov. 10. Until recently, Best held a second job, working at a Pizza Joint.
On the same day Best donated $2,500, so did Heather Fehr, another executive assistant to Mullins. Like Best, Fehr had never given to a federal-level campaign. Fehr didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Best said in a phone interview that she recalled a discussion at work with Mullins and Fehr about the McLeod campaign. She also said she knew Fehr gave to McLeod the same day she did.
Asked whether Mullins suggested she contribute, she responded, “I wasn’t forced.”
Records show that McLeod, a real estate attorney, has done at least some work with Mullins’ company, and Best said she’s met him “quite a few” times.
“He seems like a great guy and like somebody I want to support,” she said, adding that McLeod “plays a big part in our business.”
But Best said she’d never been to a McLeod campaign event. Nor could she describe any of his views or proposals that she likes.
She said neither Mullins nor anyone else in the company reimbursed her for her donation.
Best said she doesn’t have money problems, adding that her husband is an Army officer. But Army records indicate that he is a corporal.
When asked repeatedly how and why she decided to give $2,500, she hung up.
On Jan. 11, Tina Miller of Hephzibah, who never had contributed before to a federal campaign, gave $2,500.
Miller, an office manager at K&N Construction in Martinez, works for Kenneth Wayne Newman, who gave $2,500 on the same day. She did not return two phones calls seeking comment.
Her husband, Benjamin Miller, said he and his wife have known McLeod for “a long time” and called him “one of the most honest persons I have ever known.”
Asked whether his wife might have had help with the contribution, he answered, “I’m not going to get into my wife’s financial affairs.”
Newman – a first-time congressional donor – said he was unaware of Tina Miller’s contribution and didn’t discuss the campaign with her. But he said she knows McLeod, who he said has handled real estate closings for his company.
“I have known him for a long time,” Newman said of McLeod, whom he called a “personal friend.”
“He’s a very honest person,” he said. “I think he will make a good effort.”
Asked what he thought McLeod stands for or what he might accomplish in Congress, he replied, “I think they all talk a lot of junk. All we can do is hope for the best.”
Another $2,500 donation Paradise cited was from Frances Allen, Mike Allen’s wife and a former personal assistant to McLeod at his law firm.
Frances Allen, now the scheduler for the campaign, was paid $4,000 during the first quarter of 2012. Last year, she gave the campaign $2,500.
Both Allens said the $4,000 was for work she did and that she wasn’t reimbursed – directly or indirectly – for the $2,500 donation.
Frances Allen said she donated because “I support what he stands for and he’s a good man who deserves my support and would be a great congressman.”
In a related development, McLeod supporter David Barbee said nine donations to Allen and two to GOP candidate Lee Anderson deserve scrutiny.
Although three people listed as unemployed gave a total of $1,000 to Allen, four other donors listed as homemakers or housewives gave a total of $4,750.
Paradise insisted that all donations to the Allen campaign were legal.
“Unlike Wright McLeod, ... Rick W. Allen respects the law and every contribution made to our campaign was legal,” he said.
Reagan Williams, the campaign manager for Anderson, a state representative from Grovetown, said much the same.
“All of our contributions are legal and have been appropriately reported,” Williams said.