Athens mayoral candidate Richie Knight may have violated Georgia campaign finance laws by using company resources for campaign purposes.
Interviews with a number of Knight’s former employees at HW Creative Marketing—the Athens firm Knight co-owns— and former campaign staffers suggest that Knight exceeded campaign contribution limits related to his campaign’s use of his business’s office space and payments made by his company to campaign workers. (Editor’s note: The author is dating a former Knight campaign volunteer, but she was not a source for this article.)
Marc Hershovitz, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in political law, confirmed the appearance of a pattern of apparent violations. Hershovitz’s clients in the past have included Democrats and Republicans, including former Gov. Roy Barnes, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, state Sen. David Shafer and former congressman Ben Jones.
Under Georgia campaign-finance law, corporations can donate to political campaigns in the same way that a person can. Like individual donors, they are limited to a total donation of $2,600, which can be split between direct financial donations and in-kind donations of goods, services and other non-monetary items. A person who owns a corporation can donate on behalf of themselves as well as the corporation. Corporations that have “common ownership and control” have their contributions aggregated for legal purposes. This rule prevents someone from creating multiple corporations and donating $2,600 from each.
The marketing company that Knight owns with Nicole Batten, HW Creative Marketing, is registered with the state as a corporation called “HW Production Co.”, and is subject to the $2,600 limit. On the June 2017 campaign finance disclosure filed with the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections, Knight’s campaign reported receiving a $2,600 in-kind donation in “social media marketing” from HW Creative Marketing. As a result, HW Creative Marketing would have maxed out its contributions to Knight’s campaign, and could make no further contributions, either monetary or in-kind.
Knight lists a P.O. box as the address for his campaign on his website. Several former employees said that the campaign used office and storage space from HW Creative’s office at 314 E. Washington Street. The former employees, some of whom worked for the campaign and others who worked at HW, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of possible retribution from Knight or his supporters.
In addition, Knight also issued an April press release about an “LGBTQ Community Dialogue” at his campaign headquarters. The release promoting the event featured a picture of the inside of the HW Creative office. There is also an election-night event being hosted by the campaign taking place at HW Creative’s office. Campaigns are required to record free office space given every month as an in-kind donation, or to pay a portion of the rent to the owner according to the fair market value of the property in question.
“Philosophically, an in-kind donation is the simultaneous donation and expenditure of money,” Hershovitz said. “If your campaign needs a new TV, me giving you a check for $1,000 or just giving you the TV are essentially the same thing. You could just take the $1,000 and write a check to Best Buy for the TV, but an in-kind contribution short circuits that.”
Georgia law requires that campaigns file reports on the contributions they recieve and expenditures they disburse on regularly scheduled dates. On all of the campaign finance reports filed by Knight’s campaign thus far, there was no listing of further in-kind donations by HW Creative for the office space; such activity would be illegal, as HW Creative had already contributed the maximum amount (as an in-kind contribution for “social media marketing”) as recorded in the June 2017 report. There is also no listed expenditure in the reports indicating that the campaign is compensating the company for use of the office and storage space.
Knight has not responded to several requests for comment made by phone, email or social media Saturday and Sunday.
Former employees said that Knight had previously told them that HW Creative pays somewhere between $5,000–$7,000 a month in rent, and that the campaign occupied desks in the office as well as storage space going back at least to early 2017. Similar office spaces in downtown Athens rent for over $5,000 per month. As a result, it appears that HW Creative has exceeded the legal campaign contribution limit by thousands of dollars.
Knight’s payments to his campaign staffers have also raised questions of legality. A former Knight campaign staffer was paid through checks from HW Creative on several occasions and provided a copy of one such check made out to the staffer.
But the former staffer said the work was exclusively campaign related, and was not related to HW Creative or its clients in any way. Therefore, the payments from HW Creative would also constitute an in-kind donation from the company, and would raise further questions about HW Creative’s violation of the donation limit; there would also be liability on the campaign’s side for accepting an illegal donation. Furthermore, the payments were never recorded in any public campaign finance reports, which would most likely constitute an additional violation.
“Every single expenditure and every single donation is required to be disclosed on the financial disclosure reports,” Hershovitz said. “The business that is paying the salary of the staffer has made an excess contribution. They have violated the law. That business has liability. The campaign has liability, because that campaign has received a campaign contribution that is in excess of the law. The candidate, him or herself, also has liability. Under Georgia law, the candidate is liable for all acts of the campaign committee.”
Some former employees also said that HW Creative employees were assigned to campaign-related tasks on company time, which would count as an in-kind donation of labor from HW Creative. Others said that they were pressured to participate in campaign activities or were unknowingly and unwillingly included in campaign material without signing consent forms or agreeing to appear in the materials.
The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly known as the State Ethics Commission) is the body responsible for investigating campaign-finance violations in Georgia. The commission can levy civil penalties up to thousands of dollars for candidates who violate campaign-finance law, and can make a referral for criminal prosecution if warranted. Furthermore, criminal charges can be filed by local district attorneys. However, Hershovitz said that criminal charges in these cases are extremely rare. The commission usually only begins investigations once an opposing campaign or citizen files a complaint.
“[I hope that] campaigns are not generally exceeding the in-kind contribution limit. If they are, we have criminal campaigns. Candidates usually seek to follow the law, so I would say that this is not common,” Hershovitz said. “Rounding errors and other trivial things are one thing, but a campaign getting free rent is egregious.”
Mayoral candidate Kelly Girtz reported paying $1,000 to Kindercore Vinyl for the use of an office on his most recent disclosure, covering February and March. His campaign manager Michelle Davis’ law office is in the same Fritz Mar Lane building that houses Kindercore.
Another candidate, Harry Sims, lists his campaign headquarters as an office park off of Athens West Parkway, but he has not reported paying any rent or receiving an in-kind donation of office space. The small space in a jeans-making business is merely used for storage and has no TV, internet access or furniture, according to Sims’ campaign spokesman, Jeff Snowden. “It is our plan to report it in the next cycle at the value it has to the campaign,” Snowden said.
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