Courtroom battles stemming from allegations about a candidate’s eligibility for a Sandy Springs state House race continue as the state Republican Party makes new allegations and the Democratic candidate fights back with a libel lawsuit.
The state GOP, which is backing Alex Kaufman in the House District 51 race, claims that Democratic rival Josh McLaurin lied about his eligibility on forms and illegally registered to vote. McLaurin says the accusations are nonsense and fodder for negative campaign mailers, and he is suing the Republicans for libel with the help of former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans.
“The only reason they filed [the complaints] is so they can send nasty mail,” McLaurin said.
Kaufman said he stands by the GOP mailers and called them “accurate.”
“To be certain, I believe that the law and the facts paint a very different story than what McLaurin would have people believe,” Kaufman said in a written statement. “These are serious investigations against McLaurin.”
Kaufman and McLaurin are seeking to replace retiring state Rep. Wendell Willard, a Republican, in the state House District 51, which covers the Sandy Springs panhandle and parts of Johns Creek and Roswell.
Evans, a former state representative and former Democratic candidate for governor, has filed a libel complaint against the GOP for its mailer, McLaurin said. State Rep. Scott Holcomb is leading the defense against the allegations, he said.
Complaints allege that McLaurin violated state statutes by lying on a candidacy form saying he met the residency requirement and by illegally accessing the voter registration system to register while not living in the state. He denies he violated both statutes.
Candice Broce, a spokesperson for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office and the elections board, confirmed that the complaints have been filed, but could not provide any other details during the investigation.
Violations of election laws can be criminal and prosecutors have the authority to pursue criminal charges, according to the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.
A separate ethics complaint filed with the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission accuses McLaurin of not disclosing thousands in campaign donations. That allegation comes from McLaurin not reporting work Holcomb’s law firm did during a former complaint.
Pro bono legal services are not required to be reported as campaign contribution, according to state campaign finance law. But the complaint says there was additional work done by other salaried firm employees that does count, said Bryan Tyson, an election lawyer who filed the complaint. McLaurin disputes that.
The Fulton County Republican Party previously challenged McLaurin’s campaign, saying he wasn’t eligible because he has not lived in the state or district long enough. A judge later ruled in McLaurin’s favor. Now, the state GOP has sent out mailers to voters that say McLaurin is the subject of “ongoing criminal investigations.”
“McLaurin is under investigation for violating two state statutes, violation of these statutes are felonies under the law, and they are crimes even if he is not prosecuted for them,” Carmen Bergman, the executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, said in a written statement through a spokesperson. “I’m not sure what word to use for that type of investigation other than ‘criminal.’ ”
Bergman did not respond to specific questions about the allegations.
The mailer says, “Josh McLaurin wants to be your representative but cannot follow the law,” according to images posted on social media. On the back is a photo of a man appearing to be peeking through window blinds.
McLaurin accuses the GOP of knowingly publishing “false and defamatory” information on the mailers to help Kaufman win in a libel suit filed by Evans Oct. 16.
Kaufman said that he believes the suit is without merit.
“I believe that McLaurin’s libel suit is a political stunt rather than a lawsuit with merit — particularly given the heightened standard for libel against a public person, especially in the political arena and in the unfortunately heated political climate we are in today,” Kaufman said.
McLaurin said the allegations are twisting of his testimony during a hearing about the previous complaint and of his interpretation of how to fill out candidacy documents.
McLaurin grew up in Marietta, attending school in Sandy Springs, and took a job in New York before returning to Georgia in 2016.
“It is true that I changed my citizenship to New York for a brief period of time,” he said.
McLaurin filled out the affidavit for candidacy in March, saying he will have lived in the state and district for enough time before the election. But the complaint alleges that the form states he had fulfilled residency requirements when he filled out the form, which is not the case. McLaurin disputes that, saying the form asks if the candidate is eligible by the time of the election.
He disputes the allegation he illegally voted, saying he had almost completely moved to Georgia when he registered to vote and wanted to ensure he could vote in the 2016 election. He did return to New York for a week to finish his job, but was considered a resident of Georgia when he registered, he said.
“The GOP has twisted it into this story about me illegally manipulating the online system,” he said. “When you really dig into the facts, it’s absurd.”
McLaurin claims the GOP only filed the original complaint to question him about registering to vote before officially moving.
“When the GOP filed the residency challenge, they discovered quickly that they were not going to win,” he said. “They did it to get me under oath.”
He said he established Georgia citizenship in September 2016 and residency in the House district in September 2017.
An ethics complaint accuses McLaurin of not disclosing thousands in campaign donations because he did not list the pro bono work Holcomb’s law firm did in defending him during the original complaint.
“If that were true no one who works in a law firm could work pro bono,” he said. “It doesn’t even make sense to me.”
McLaurin said he believes the GOP is leveraging the accusations to stave off a potential loss of the seat long held by Republicans.
“The politics in our suburbs are changing,” McLaurin said.
Update: This article has been updated to clarify claims about the candidacy affidavit.