Ethics board lifts stay, clears way for prosecution of Augusta House member

Augusta state Rep. Earnest Smith faces 93 ethics violations. He lost the Democratic primary in May.

Possible criminal charges and hefty fines on hiatus during the legislative session return to haunt state Rep. Earnest Smith after a Thursday decision by the state ethics commission.

 

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission voted Thursday to lift a stay in effect during the session that had given Smith an opportunity to document or correct numerous issues that gave rise to a record-setting 93 violations of campaign finance laws.

Smith, who lost the seat he’d held since 2010 in the May 26 Democratic primary to newcomer Sheila Clark Nelson, said he had no comment on the action.

The commission’s vote was 3-0 to lift the stay and refer the case to the Georgia attorney general, but members gave Smith’s lawyer 60 days to familiarize himself with the case, said Robert Lane, commission staff attorney.

An order issued after Smith’s December hearing said the commission had grounds to believe Smith broke campaign finance laws on 93 occasions, dating back to his 2009 unopposed campaign for the House seat from which Mayor Hardie Davis had resigned.

The order lists dozens of contributions from local and state politicians and several political action committees that Smith failed to report in campaign filings. It lists dozens more expenditures of those funds - for individual amounts up to $1,800 - that Smith failed to report.

In December, Lane said the unreported expenses included approximately $19,000 in checks made out to “cash.”

In addition to possible theft by taking and theft by conversion charges, a first violation of the Georgia Campaign Finance Act carries a maximum fine of $1,000; a second is $10,000 and a third, $25,000, and Smith is potentially subject up to $180,000 in fines, Lane said.

Smith, who until this week represented himself before the commission, called the inquiry in December a “witch hunt” and vowed to clear his name. “Truth will trump allegations,” he said.

Since then, Smith has amended his campaign filings 21 times and filed four previously missing reports.

And yet, his last report doesn’t come close even to accounting for donations to him reported by others that a cursory search of the state ethics site reveals. Smith reported he’d collected only $6,471 during the six-year period.

The Republican challenger whose 2012 ethics complaint was verified and led to the commission finding numerous other violations said he initially wanted to give Smith “the benefit of the doubt” and asked Smith to correct the errors.

David Hopper said after Smith refused and called him a know-nothing at a political forum, Hopper filed the complaint.

Hopper thanked Lane for vindicating his complaint and credits the experience with triggering his completion of a bachelor’s degree at Augusta University and his upcoming award of law and master’s degrees and October marriage to a woman he met at Ohio Northern University College of Law.

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