Bebe Heiskell fined for excess campaign contributions

Bebe Heiskell plans to run for her fifth term as Walker County commissioner in November, but this time as an independent. Of the Republican Party, which has historically backed her, she said previously, "I haven't had a whole lot of luck with them. They want a more radically conservative candidate than I am."

Former Walker County, Ga., Commissioner Bebe Heiskell agreed to pay a fine this month for taking excess campaign contributions.

Heiskell signed a consent order with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission on June 2, agreeing to pay a $6,000 fine. The four-member commission accepted the consent order at a meeting Wednesday.

During her unsuccessful bid for re-election last year, according to the order, six donors each gave Heiskell $3,000. Another donor, Audia Group, gave $6,000. But the limit for a donation to a county commissioner in Georgia is $2,600.

Usually, the commission asks the candidate to return the excess funds to the donor. But in this case, commission Deputy Executive Secretary Robert Lane said, Heiskell did not have any money left in her campaign fund. So instead, the commission agreed to simply fine her out of her personal account.

"Generally, that's considered a more severe penalty," Lane said. "So there's nothing to return here."

In October, the Times Free Press found that Heiskell actually accepted over-the-limit donations from 14 people and businesses, as opposed to the seven outlined in the consent order. Her campaign contribution reports showed that 14 donors combined to give $56,750 - $20,000 above the limit.

But Lane said investigators found Heiskell actually overreported the amount of money flowing into her campaign. She recorded some donations that didn't actually happen. In other cases, she returned money after receiving too much - though she forgot to record that in her reports.

Lane said investigators looked at her campaign bank accounts to see the full picture.

"There were more accounting errors than [instances of] 'We took extra money,'" he said.

The commission has a lot of leeway on how to assess fines for excess donations. The first time candidates receive more money from a donor than they should, they are on the hook for a fine of up to $1,000. The second time, the maximum fine is $10,000. For every excess donor after that, the fine can go as high as $25,000.

But the commission rarely punishes a candidate to the full extent. Lane said he believes the highest fine it has assessed sits around $45,000.

Heiskell did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

After the Times Free Press reported on Heiskell's contributions last year, two volunteers for her opponent's campaign reported her to the commission. Asked whether he was pleased with the commission's consent order, one of those volunteers, Dean Kelley, said "I guess."

"She's been held accountable," he said. "She needed to be."

Heiskell, who became Walker County commissioner in 2001, lost her re-election bid in November, getting about 12 percent of the vote. The winner in the three-person race, Shannon Whitfield, received 73 percent of the vote.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.