ATLANTA --- It's legal now for Georgia politicians to transfer as much money as they want to other candidates, setting up the potential for a retiring office holder to hand over an incumbent-size war chest to a chosen successor.
Apparently, it's always been legal to move unlimited sums from one campaign to another. It's just that Tuesday the State Ethics Commission changed its interpretation of a provision in a long-standing law.
"This is a game-changer," said Rick Thompson, the commission's former executive secretary and now an ethics consultant. "If the commission stands on this decision, it would change politics completely in Georgia."
Until Tuesday, the commission took the stance that politicians' leftover campaign funds could only be given to another candidate's campaign up to the same $2,400 maximum as any other contributor. The idea was to prevent a successful candidate from feeling obligated to a major donor by applying the same limit to everyone.
That ceiling protects legislators from their own leadership. Many of the top legislators in the House and Senate amass large campaign accounts, and side accounts called leadership political-action committees, because lobbyists make donations to try to stay in the good graces of the powerful.
Last week, the commission fined former House Speaker Glenn Richardson for transferring $200,000 from his campaign account to his leadership PAC because he didn't wait until the PAC got its nonprofit designation. Under the revised legal interpretation, he could have given all of that money to Nathan Deal, the candidate for governor he had endorsed.
Gov. Sonny Perdue could have topped that by giving his former deputy chief of staff, Karen Handel, $800,000 left over in his re-election campaign.
Observers say the new interpretation opens the door to wholesale mischief.
"This doesn't just open the door. It kicks the door down," Thompson said.
Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause of Georgia, is baffled that the commission could conclude the legislature wanted to allow any amount of transfers when it passed the law.
"It's hard to rationalize that any thinking person would think that's what they intended to do," he said.
At least one key legislator says the commission got it wrong. Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, chairs the House Ethics Committee, the panel that deals with most campaign-finance legislation.
"We thought that the limits were very clear and that they would be adhered to," he said Friday. "Legislative intent has been, and will continue to be, to have a restriction on transfers."
The issue came up as the commission considered a complaint filed against Chuck Chalk, an unsuccessful candidate for Warner Robins mayor last year following Mayor Donald Walker's suicide. Walker's widow gave $10,000 from the late mayor's campaign fund to Chalk.
Before the commission considered whether there was probable cause to launch an investigation into allegations Mrs. Walker exceeded the $2,400 limits, the commission got a memo from its current executive secretary, Stacey Kalberman.
It was her first regular commission meeting, and it starts her tenure with a bang. She wrote that a section of the law "appears to exempt campaign-to-campaign contributions from the maximum allowable contribution limits" of a different section.
She quoted a 1992, unofficial opinion by then-Attorney General Michael Bowers that states "the General Assembly appears to have intended to limit the use of campaign contributions by an office holder to his or her own future campaigns, and not limit the ability of a candidate to transfer funds to another candidate or to a political party."
Commission Chairman James Gatewood said her memo convinced all five lawyers on the commission that Bowers was right.
"It was the first time a lot of us were looking at it. You have a law that reads pretty clear," he said. "ÃIf I think the statute reads one way, I can't rule another way."
It remains to be seen whether anyone will take advantage of the Wild West era of campaign transfers before the legislature shuts the door -- if it does shut the door. Gargantuan transfers could happen at any moment, lending new possibilities to an October surprise.
(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (404) 589-8424.)