Fundraiser leads to donation query

WASHINGTON - The late Rep. Charlie Norwood's campaign spent more than $63,000 for an event at a Ritz-Carlton golf resort two months after he died.

On the same weekend, the candidate endorsed by Mr. Norwood's family to succeed the congressman - former state Sen. Jim Whitehead - held a fundraiser at the same hotel, reports and interviews show.

Norwood officials said the events were unrelated and that Mr. Norwood's expenditures were for a reservation that already had been booked and could not be canceled. Although they declined requests for documentation, they said the spending did not benefit the Whitehead campaign.

Though they say the events were separate, the spending illustrates the extensive mingling between the two Republicans' political operations. At least six of Mr. Norwood's staffers went on to work in Mr. Whitehead's campaign. At times, they were simultaneously closing out Mr. Norwood's affairs.

Mr. Norwood, a veteran lawmaker from Augusta, had more than $700,000 remaining in his campaign account when he died Feb. 13 after a long illness. Federal law allows a variety of uses for the money, including donations to charities or limited contributions to political parties or campaigns.

But the law bars expenditures for personal benefit, and it sets a $2,000 cap on the value of gifts or contributions from one individual campaign committee to another.

Mr. Norwood's campaign finance reports show two expenditures - on April 20 and May 17 - totaling $63,200 to the Ritz-Carlton resort on Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga.

Amelia Brown, a campaign manager paid by both the Whitehead and Norwood committees in recent months, told The Associated Press the Norwood campaign had reserved a weekend package for a fundraiser at the resort a year previously and the hotel wouldn't cancel the reservation after Mr. Norwood died.

The hotel denied that account but declined to discuss it further, citing client confidentiality. Ms. Brown did not respond to repeated requests to authorize the hotel to release information about the reservation.

Ms. Brown said when campaign officials were told they could not get a refund, they invited longtime friends and supporters of the former congressman to stay at the resort for the April 20 weekend as a gesture of thanks. They used only a portion of the rooms - about 35 - the committee had reserved, she said.

"We had a lot of rooms that we had to pay for that were just going to be sitting there empty," said Ms. Brown, who was Mr. Norwood's campaign manager before joining Mr. Whitehead's team in the same role.

Meanwhile, the Whitehead campaign scheduled its own April 20 fundraising reception at the resort, with entertainment from country music singer Mickey Gilley.

Ms. Brown said the supporters who stayed on Mr. Norwood's tab did not attend Mr. Whitehead's reception or donate money to Mr. Whitehead's campaign.

"That was completely separate," she said. The Norwood event "was just random, longtime supporters of Charlie's. It wasn't Whitehead people."

Ms. Brown did not respond to requests for attendance lists for each event. And her explanation was at odds with that of Mr. Norwood's former chief of staff, John Walker, who said he was not aware that anyone had used the reservation the Norwood campaign had paid for.

"Not to my knowledge," he said, adding that he also was not aware of Mr. Whitehead's event.

Ms. Brown said Mr. Whitehead's campaign paid for its reception with its own money. Mr. Whitehead's campaign reported paying the Ritz-Carlton $2,275.75 on May 17, the same date as the second payment from Mr. Norwood's office. Ms. Brown said Mr. Whitehead's payment fully covered the cost of renting the resort's 5,400-square-foot Presidential House for the reception.

Mr. Norwood and Mr. Whitehead, both from Evans, were friends, and Mr. Norwood's family endorsed Mr. Whitehead. Along with Ms. Brown, Mr. Whitehead hired Mr. Norwood's former deputy chief of staff, John Stone, and planned to hire Mr. Walker if elected.

During the campaign, Mr. Whitehead was widely considered the front-runner and had a 4-1 fundraising advantage over his ultimate opponent, Republican Paul Broun of Athens.

Mr. Whitehead lost to Dr. Broun by less than 400 votes in last week's runoff election, according to official returns.

Campaign finance experts - speaking generally because they did not know the details of the Georgia spending - said if a campaign accepted goods or services valued at more than $2,000, it might have violated the law.

"If somebody pays for a hotel for a candidate's fundraising event, that somebody has to comply with contribution limits," said Jan Baran, a Washington attorney specializing in election law and a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee.

Larry Noble, a former chief enforcement lawyer at the Federal Election Commission, said such a scenario could turn on whether the campaign committee could get its money back and whether the two fundraisers were actually separate.

"If they could not get their money back and they invited the congressman's old friends ... you could see where they would say there was no prohibited expense." Mr. Noble said. "On the other hand, if the campaign could get the money back and instead used it for a fundraiser for another candidate, then there's a problem ... if it falls somewhere in between those two, then you have more of a discretionary issue."