As 2022’s midterm Congressional elections approach rapidly, political groups from inside and outside the state are mobilizing in Georgia, targeting a hotly contested U.S. Senate election. Andrew D. Herman and Bria Stephens of Lawrence & Bundy explain why recently revised campaign compliance rules should give political actors in the state pause.
Two years ago, Georgia made political history, as Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia’s electoral votes since Bill Clinton in 1992 — and Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff became the only Democrats ever to win election in a federal runoff in Georgia.
As attention turns to the upcoming pivotal midterm elections, Georgia is once again a national focus, and groups from inside and outside the state are organizing with the goal of continuing (or ending) the Democratic winning streak. But these individuals and groups should be aware of recent actions and a generally stricter regulatory framework in Georgia than in some other states.
Georgia’s regulatory regime is generally more stringent than the rules imposed on similar activity by other jurisdictions. Thus, before pursuing new political activity in the state (or continuing existing political activity), groups should be aware of the registration and disclosure requirements set forth by Georgia’s Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission as well as the risk of noncompliance, whether inadvertent or not. The commission, formerly known as Georgia State Ethics Commission, consists of five appointed members, including three appointed by the governor, one appointed by the Senate Committee on Assignments and one appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives.
The commission regulates all state-level elected officials, appointed public officers, lobbyists, political action committees, independent committees and all candidates for public office. Its work includes collecting campaign contribution disclosures, personal financial disclosures and lobbyist disclosures, as well as educating the public on the Campaign Finance Act and investigating potential campaign finance violations.
Its enforcement authority includes the power to issue subpoenas to compel a person to appear, give sworn testimony or produce documents, institute and prosecute actions, issue and publish orders and even award attorneys’ fees to parties who are subject to frivolous complaints.
Recent commission actions
In July, the commission fined 30 candidates, both Republican and Democratic, including several running for statewide office. Many of the fines stemmed from candidates’ reported failure to include required information about their income for the past five years within their personal financial disclosure statements.
News reports indicate that many candidates faced difficulties completing the new forms implemented by the commission. The forms were the result of an amended statute, passed in March, which requires candidates to file a financial disclosure statement that includes information about their sources of income for the five calendar years prior to the year of the election and the first quarter of the calendar of the election. The prior version of the statute only required candidates to disclose information about the candidate’s income for the calendar year prior to the election year and the first quarter of the calendar year of the election.
Although the law and forms impose new, detailed requirements, the commission does not appear to be approaching mistakes with leniency. While the fines issued are not particularly large — ranging from $625 to $1,000 depending on the violation — the associated reputational harm can be significant. Upping the ante, candidates have capitalized on fines imposed on their political opponents with public criticism and attacks.
The commission has also focused on reporting by nonprofits, political action committees and other organizations. For example, the commission had a hearing Aug. 1 regarding an inquiry that had languished with little consideration for years; the probe into a pair of nonprofits, one founded by gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, accused of sidestepping financial disclosure laws, will continue, the commission ruled.
Rules for lobbyists entering the Georgia political arena
Based on its recent activity, the commission appears to be taking a strict stance on all registration and disclosure requirements. Policy-focused efforts can also draw attention as Georgia law regulates lobbying activity and establishes a low threshold for what subjects a group or individuals to registration and disclosure requirements. Accordingly, those seeking to enter any aspect of the Georgia political arena should be aware of the key rules.
For individuals engaged in government relations, Georgia law defines a lobbyist as an individual receiving more than $250 per year in compensation/reimbursement or making more than $1,000 in lobbying expenditures per year to promote or oppose the passage of legislation, ordinances or resolutions or to influence a public official in the selection of a vendor.
Compared to the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), these are very low thresholds. Individuals who expect to meet these threshold amounts must register as a lobbyist prior to conducting any lobbying activity in the state.
Georgia’s rules are stricter than the federal LDA requirements and other states as well. Wisconsin, for example, requires individuals to apply for a state lobbying license only if they are paid by an organization to attempt to influence state legislation or an administrative rule and if they communicate with a government official on five or more days within a six-month reporting period. In Georgia, there is no cost to register as a lobbyist; however, there may be fees associated with identification cards or registering on behalf of multiple organizations. The failure to comply with registration requirements, however, could result in a $2,000 fine.
State disclosure requirements for groups and individuals engaged in lobbying activity in Georgia vary based on myriad factors, making professional guidance advisable for those entering and operating in Georgia. For example, lobbyists who are registered to promote or oppose legislation before the General Assembly or governor must file semimonthly disclosures. Lobbyists registered to promote or oppose ordinances or resolutions by a public officer are required to file less frequent disclosures. If an individual is registered to lobby before multiple entities, the frequency of the disclosure varies even further.
Reports by lobbyists must include a description of all lobbying expenditures, such as food, beverages and registration at group events to which all members of an agency are invited; and reimbursement or payment of actual and reasonable expenses provided to a public officer and their staff members for attending educational, informational, charitable or civic meetings or conferences.
The failure to file timely disclosures could result in fines ranging from $275 to $10,000 depending on the length of the delay in disclosing and other pertinent factors, including whether the General Assembly is in session. Additionally, the commission may deny, suspend or revoke an individual’s lobbying registration for one year for failure to comply with disclosure requirements. Compared to Wisconsin, which imposes small fines only after 30 days have expired, even for repeat violations, Georgia imposes much heavier penalties.