Jon Ossoff’s campaign has changed its tune on payments the Democrat received from a Chinese Communist Party-linked media conglomerate in Hong Kong, after Georgia Republicans filed an ethics complaint alleging he “knowingly and willfully” failed to disclose the payments in a May financial disclosure.
National Review first reported in September that Ossoff’s campaign had amended a financial disclosure form in July to reflect that he had received payment from the Chinese media firm after leaving that detail out on his initial disclosure form. Senate ethics rules only require candidates to disclose payments in excess of $5,000, and the campaign subsequently told FactCheck.org that the initial failure to disclose was the result of a “paperwork error.”
But Georgia GOP’s executive director Stewart Bragg told the Atlanta Journal Consitution on Wednesday that Ossoff “tried to hide his connection” to PCCW, 18 percent of which is owned by China’s state-backed enterprise China Unicom, and whose main owner has opposed the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
“We’re asking the Senate Ethics Committee to look into this further, because we believe this was an intentional effort to conceal information from the people of Georgia,” Bragg told the AJC, though a review of Senate ethics complaints shows they rarely result in action.
In response, the Ossoff campaign called the complaint part of “one of the most laughable smear campaigns in Georgia history,” and reiterated what the Ossoff campaign told National Review in September: that the payments stemmed from the airing of “two investigations produced by Jon’s company of ISIS war crimes,” which were produced by Ossoff’s film company Insight TWI.
Now the campaign claims that the payments were in fact less that the $5,000 disclosure threshold mandated by ethics rules, and amounted to “around $1,000,” meaning they would have been in the clear had they never amended the disclosure form.
“Though the payments were below the $5,000 reporting threshold, the campaign said the sums were disclosed in the interest of transparency,” the AJC reported.
When asked about why the PCCW payment was not included in the initial filing, however campaign spokeswoman Miryam Lipper first explained last month that the discrepancy was “a paperwork oversight” that was “rectified” in the amended filing following “a normal review of the campaign’s paperwork.”
In a response to a question about the discrepancy between the two explanations, Lipper told National Review in an email that “both are true.”
“The PCCW transactions were under the threshold for reporting, but Jon fully discloses the TV stations and distributors in dozens of countries and on every continent that have aired his company’s work,” she said. “When it was realized it was left off, they were added. Revisions to financial disclosures to ensure they are accurate and complete are totally normal.”
The Ossoff campaign did not respond to a request to review documents proving that PCCW’s payments to Ossoff were, in fact, under the $5,000 threshold — a point the campaign did not originally dispute when the amended disclosure was first reported.
Richard Painter, a professor at Minnesota law school and the former chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, told National Review that it was uncommon for a candidate to report a number under the $5,000 threshold.
“It’s usually what’s over, most people don’t when it’s under,” he explained. “If it’s anything controversial that needs to be flushed out, it’s always better to just put all the cards up on the table and disclose it — if it’s controversial and it’s under the threshold, and then explain it up front — rather than have somebody go find it.”
Along with PCCW, the Washington Free Beacon has previously revealed that, based on the same amended disclosure, Ossoff was compensated financially by the Qatari-backed news agency Al Jazeera over the past two years. Questions have also been recently raised about the value of Ossoff’s ownership stake in TWI.