There was some bad news Thursday for Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine — some very bad news indeed. The State Ethics Commission, which for several months has been looking into questionable contributions that insurance companies funneled to the Ox via Alabama-based PACs, voted unanimously to expand their investigation by requesting additional information from the insurance companies and the PACs.
This means the investigation will continue at least to the end of the year and could result in a embarrassing commission ruling against Oxendine just as his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination really starts to hit high gear.
The Oxendine case resembles one of those shakedowns that you see in politics from time to time. Insurance companies that the Ox regulates cannot legally make contributions to him, so two of those companies sent $120,000 to 10 political action committees based in Alabama. The insurance companies are headed by Dee Yancey III, who has been appointed several times by Oxendine to the influential Georgia Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Association. Yancey and Oxendine have a longstanding relationship that includes at least one hunting trip to Mexico.
The PACs are based at Alamerica Bank in Birmingham, which is headed by Donald V. Watkins, a director at both of the insurance companies that sent money to the PACs. Watkins’ son, Donald V. Watkins Jr., is chairman of the PACs. The PACs collectively contributed $120,000 to Oxendine’s campaign for governor.
After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story in May, the Ethics Commission launched the investigation and Oxendine returned the $120,000 in questionable contributions.
When the Oxendine affair came up for discussion at the Ethics Commission on Thursday, commission members voted to add the insurance companies and the PACs to the investigation so that more information could be obtained on the contributions.
The panel members were skeptical of contentions that the Oxendine campaign did not know the money given by insurance companies he regulated had gone through the PACs and then into his campaign coffers.
“It’s hard for me to believe someone didn’t know about that,” said commission member James Gatewood.
“To me, there’s a lot of smoke here,” Commission Chairman Bill Jordan said. “I’m not prepared to dismiss it (a formal proceeding against Oxendine), but I’m not prepared to go forward.” Jordan made the motion to widen the investigation into the suspect contributions.
Commission attorney Tom Plank said the staff had not found “direct evidence” that Oxendine knew the money from the PACs had originally been contributed by companies his office regulated.
“There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that perhaps he should have known,” Plank said, noting that the PACs all shared the same address, were headed by a man (Yancey) who has had a long relationship with Oxendine, and sent checks to the campaign that were all cut on Dec. 31.
Oxendine’s attorney, Stefan Passantino, argued “there are no facts here, there is speculation.”
“Just because they had a common treasurer doesn’t mean they’re a common entity,” Passantino said. “It is perfectly legal for that fact-pattern to occur . . . there’s no evidence that the campaign knew about that.”
Despite Passantino’s objections, the investigation is still hanging out there, a ticking time bomb that could explode at a very inopportune time for the Oxendine campaign.
In addition to the Ethics Commission probe, Oxendine is also picking a fight with the Southern Voice newspaper and Georgia’s gay community, obviously a deliberate tactic to solidify his support on the Christian right.
The Ox sent out a fundraising email addressed to “Patriots” on Thursday in which he declared:
These homosexual activists join a long and growing list of those on the radical Left who are, by their very attack, acknowledging who the true conservative is in this campaign and who they are afraid of. While, I am proud to stand up for traditional marriage and, frankly, proud to be attacked by the gay lobby, I NEED YOUR HELP today.
The dispute between Oxendine and Southern Voice was sparked by an earlier news release from Oxendine that criticized last weekend’s National Equality March in Washington, D.C.
“The family is under attack, and in Washington DC this weekend, so is the President,” Oxendine said. “They [gay rights activists] insist on teaching children in the public schools that same-sex marriage is morally equivalent to traditional marriage.”
Southern Voice news editor Dyana Bagby countered with a blog post headlined “Dear John Oxendine, you will lose in the end” that criticized Oxendine for past anti-gay statements and actions:
Oxendine has a long history of trying to deny gays in Georgia basic rights while serving as the state’s Insurance Commissioner, including attempting to deny local government employees the rights to domestic partnerships. . . . So sacred is your marriage that when your baby Jake is born, you immediately put him in a starring role in one of your campaign ad commercials? No way is that exploiting the family, right?
That blog post apparently infuriated Oxendine, who came back with his scorching email on Thursday.
“The radical homosexual activists over at Southern Voice have launched a vicious attack on me — by name — for my defense of traditional marriage in America,” Oxendine wrote.
Will you send a message to the radical Left and the homosexual activists by sending our campaign a donation today?
I need your financial support to be in a position to continue our positive campaign for the Reagan values of Faith, Family, and Freedom. A donation of $30, $50, $80, or even $100 – or more – will allow me to get our message out to protect traditional marriage.
You and I know that we are not against anyone and that we love all people. No matter how much a few radical activists try; we will not surrender the institution of marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman – always has been and always will be . . .
But, I cannot do this without your financial support. I am willing to take the direct attacks by the radical Left. What I need you to do is help provide the resources to carry the battle across Georgia.
$30, $50, $80, or even $100 – or more – whatever you can give, give TODAY. I promise you the homosexual activists are already raising money to defeat our campaign and insure that Roy Barnes is Georgia’s next Governor. They want Roy Barnes to redefine marriage in Georgia.
If you want to stop Roy Barnes and his friends at Southern Voice from legalizing same sex marriage in Georgia, then send a contribution TODAY.
And we haven’t even gotten to the topic of the Ox’s father, Jim Oxendine, who prematurely “retired” as a senior Superior Court judge in Gwinnett County after it was learned he had been involved in negotiating a land deal now under investigation by a special grand jury to see if tax dollars were used to buy property from politically connected landowners.
One of the other players in the controversial Gwinnett land dealings is county Commissioner Shirley Lasseter — who just happens to work for John Oxendine.
Just for good measure, the Journal-Constitution reported today that Jim Oxendine was bounced off the board of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Development Fund, a nonprofit organization, after the board said he had entered into an agreement to pay a fellow board member nearly $400,000 without authorization.
Add all of these things up and you’d have to conclude it was not a very good week for John Oxendine. Will it damage his campaign for the GOP nomination? I haven’t seen any poll numbers yet that would indicate this.
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