David Emadi discusses campaign finance issues at Cartersville event

State ethics commission director speaks in Bartow

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David Emadi, who serves as the executive secretary of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, was blunt at Saturday morning’s Bartow County Republican Party meeting in Cartersville. 

“For the last maybe eight to 10 years or so, the ethics commission really hasn’t done as much as it needs to be doing,” he said. “Our technology is pretty outdated on a couple of fronts. The software we’re working off of is about — and you know it’s old software when no one can tell you how old it is — but it’s somewhere between 12-15 years old.”

Emadi, a former assistant district attorney for Douglas County, was appointed to the state ethics commission position roughly four months ago by Governor Brian Kemp.

He said “a more efficient and transparent” system should be coming online shortly, with the state ethics commission website getting an overhaul within the next six to nine months.

Citing an old prosecutorial proverb, Emadi said there’s a stark difference between those who make the ethics commission mad — i.e., candidates who file late “and may mix up some rules” — and those whose actions legitimately frighten the state agency. 

“People who are trying to use money to influence elections unfairly, those are the people that, moving forward, my agency is going to be focusing on prosecuting aggressively,” he said. “Whether that’s candidates, whether it’s large political action committees, whoever it is, that’s something we have not done a great job in the past, and I’m here to tell you it’s something we’re going to do in the future.”

And that, Emadi said, is something that applies to Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

“Unlike some of my predecessors,” he said, “no one’s getting shown favoritism.”

According to State records, Emadi did make contributions to the campaigns of two Republican candidates in the 2018 election cycle, gifting $250 to Christopher Carr’s attorney general campaign and $600 to Brian Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign.

Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor was an attendee at the event. He asked Emadi several questions about the legality of out-of-state campaign contributions.

“I just wonder, legislatively speaking, is there some way that at least a percentage should come from Georgia if you’re running for the Georgia governor’s seat?” he posed. “Why does Hollywood have so much influence in bringing in more money than is raised in Georgia? That’s my big beef with the other party — if they beat us fair and square, that’s fine, but the money that’s coming is an enormous amount of money … I think it leads to a lot of corruption, other states and other big money is wanting to put their person as their governor.”

The out-of-state money that goes into Georgia’s politics, Emadi said, is registered with and regulated by the ethics commission. Under his watch, he said the State will keep a closer eye on such financial activities.

“To the extent that I can control it, we’re going to make sure anyone who’s trying to influence elections are at least reporting to us, and we can monitor what they do with that money,” he said. 

But it’s not just state and federal-level campaign contributions the ethics commission is looking at. 

“There are a number of cities, because the local candidates report at the local level, where we’re not getting that information turned over to us,” he said. “We’ve been gently-forcefully reaching out to the cities and counties and telling them they have to turn that information over, because we’re going to start enforcing it.”

Taylor quickly chimed in, noting that Bartow County and its municipal-level governments do not turn their contribution information over to a clerk’s office, but the local elections board.

“Who you turn it into at the local level, I think the municipalities and the counties decide,” Emadi said. “Most of the time they pick the clerk of court, but you can pick your board of elections.”

Nonetheless, Taylor said the County will double check to make sure the “right information” is being passed along.

Such oversight, Emadi said, isn’t just about making sure candidates abide by the law when they’re raising funds, but making sure Georgia’s coffers get their proper dues. About 98% of the money collected by the commission, he said, goes straight back into the State treasury.

“That can get appropriated for K-12, that can go to roads and infrastructure, that can go to health care,” he said. “I think more than half are probably turning it in, but there are a number of counties and cities that aren’t, and there’s a lot of money out there that probably needs to be collected and regulated and given back to the treasury.”

As a “quasi-criminal prosecutorial body,” Emadi said the commission has the ability to prosecute those who violate the State’s campaign finance laws. He can also turn candidates over to criminal prosecutors, be it the local district attorney, the State attorney general or — if need be — the office of a United States Attorney.

The rules, he continued, vary depending on whether the offender is a sole candidate or a committee.

Emadi brought up prosecuting Douglas County District Attorney David McDade last month — the man Emadi once worked for.

“He was essentially giving money back to people who never donated,” he said. “By getting that data in and investigating it and regulating what he was doing with his money, we were then able to file a complaint against him and actually fine him about $8,000.”

Whereas single-donor contributions to State legislators in Georgia are capped at $2,800 per election, Emadi noted that political action committees are allowed to contribute an unlimited amount to such candidates.

“They can raise hundreds of millions of dollars but the catch is they’re not allowed to coordinate with campaigns,” he said. “If they coordinate with campaigns, then campaigns have just circumvented the whole process.”

Nor can candidates “consent” with an independent committee “to do work on their behalf,” Emadi said. 

“What we would do then is issue subpoenas for email communications, bank records, payrolls records — are they sharing staff, is there something that connects the two?” he said. “If there is, then you’ve got a case.”