Mystery money

Fed probe includes Campbell's campaign bucks

Bob Davis and his wife supposedly gave $4,000 to Mayor Bill Campbell's 1997 re-election campaign.

The funny thing is, they didn't know they contributed.

The FBI thinks it's funny too, but not funny in a "ha-ha" way.

Last spring, investigators from the bureau and the Internal Revenue Service showed up on the front porch of the Davises' north Fulton home.

Bob Davis remembers that he was in the shower when the feds arrived. He thought his wife was joking.

"We wouldn't have any interest in Atlanta politics," Davis says. "We live in Alpharetta."

Neither he nor his wife ever gave to the Campbell campaign, Davis says, and yet their names showed up on the finance disclosure form that campaign treasurer Steven Labovitz filed Jan. 5, 1998, after the November 1997 runoff election. U.S. postal money orders made out to the campaign also carry the Davises' names.

The Davises aren't alone. The couple is part of a group of at least 11 people who supposedly gave the legal limit of $2,000 to Campbell's election bid, but either told Creative Loafing or told people contacted by CL that they never donated money to the campaign. They said their names were added to the list of donors without their knowledge.

All but one of the mystery donors contacted by CL said they have been questioned by the FBI. Some testified, in January and April, before a federal grand jury investigating City Hall corruption.

Of course, the interesting question for federal prosecutors is, if people like the Davises didn't give money to the Campbell campaign, who did?

CL has learned that the mysterious donations are one focus of the long-running federal grand jury probe into the Campbell administration. That probe, which is entering its third year, already has led to the conviction of one close Campbell friend and city contractor, as well as something of a bunker mentality in the mayor's administration. Campbell seldom speaks with the press nowadays and city employees are discouraged to speak to federal investigators without city-hired lawyers present.

As early as January, however, the campaign-finance portion of the probe was quietly moving along. Agents were showing up on doorsteps as distant as Swainsboro and Byron, asking supposed donors about their relationship to close friends of Campbell.

One name that popped up in at least one interview with federal agents: A city contractor named C.R. "Ronnie" Thornton, who was an active fund-raiser in the mayor's two campaigns and whom one individual places at the center of the mysterious donor controversy.

Thornton didn't return phone calls from Creative Loafing.

Former Campbell campaign workers acknowledge that the campaign needed cash fast in November 1997. They had dumped a huge amount of money into an effort to head off the surging campaign of Campbell's nemesis, City Council President Marvin Arrington. But Arrington pushed Campbell into a runoff anyway, and Campbell's budget suddenly was tight.

What made things particularly difficult was that state campaign finance laws limit the amount donors can give candidates in any election cycle. At the time, individual and corporate donors were allowed to contribute up to $2,000 during an election year and $1,000 in an off year. So if a contributor already had donated $2,000 for the 1997 general election, the campaign, in theory, had to look elsewhere.

According to expenditure reports filed for the period that began just after the general election, the incumbent mayor had spent $2.7 million of the $3 million his campaign had collected.

Facing a three-week runoff campaign, Campbell's 100-person strong finance committee, headed by Labovitz and Glenda Blum Minkin, flew into action. The mayor's team raised $390,483, according to the year's final financial disclosure.

Nearly the entire amount was raised in a three-week period after the general election and before the runoff on Nov. 25. All the mystery donations came in Nov. 14 and 15 — just when the campaign most needed to raise big money quickly. The mayor ended up raising $3.43 million overall — an astounding amount for a mayoral candidate in a city Atlanta's size.

Like the Davises, Kenneth Hartley of Fort Valley was surprised when he found out he gave $2,000 to Campbell's campaign. When agents interviewed him at his business, Hartley says he was shown copies of three postal money orders, totaling $2,000, with his name as the payer.

"I wouldn't give five dollars to the mayor here," he laughs.

He and his cousin, Ted Hartley, along with another cousin and a business partner and their wives, also were puzzled by their unconscious collective largesse, once federal investigators informed them of it.

But soon after the investigators came around they figured out there was a common bond between them. Each had either a personal or business tie with a Jonesboro insurance agent named Neil Oliver, Hartley says.

Reached in his office, Oliver would not say how the names of his clients got into the hands of the Campbell campaign.

"I told them and they're happy with that, and I'm out of it," Oliver says. Asked if the "them" was the FBI, Oliver would not confirm that. "I'm not supposed to say anything to anybody."

He said he didn't give the names directly to the Campbell campaign, but when asked how the mysterious names did wind up on the finance disclosures Oliver says: Ask Thornton. "I guess Ronnie Thornton's the guy that caused all this trouble."

Oliver says that he knows Thornton, but they're not close.

"He grew up in Jonesboro," Oliver says. "Everybody here knows everbody else."

According to the Georgia Secretary of State's office, Thornton and his wife own at least a dozen companies around the state. He's a developer. He's also a major city contractor.

One of those companies, Metro Material Services LLC was given a $2 million contract to provide fill dirt for Hartsfield International Airport in December 1999. Thornton also is in line for a fill dirt contract for the airport's fifth runway — a contract expected to be worth as much as $100 million.

Besides the dirt business, Thornton also is adept at raising money for successful mayoral candidates. He helped raise thousands of dollars for Campbell and former Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Campbell's loyalists have little to say about the matter. Minkin, the former coordinator of fund raising in the campaign, who is now Campbell's spokeswoman, said, "I'm not aware of anything like what you're talking about. When people send checks, they send checks."

She referred further questions about campaign finance issues to Labovitz. Labovitz, Campbell's former chief of staff, didn't return repeated phone calls.

Officials in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta also refused to comment.