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Friday, July 10, 2009

On John Oxendine and that private investigator...

When Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle annonuced on April 15 that he decided to drop his bid for governor, rumors started flying that the reason he gave — complicated back surgery — was a white lie, and that Cagle had actually been confronted with damaging evidence that would've hurt his campaign.

People pointed fingers at Cagle's opponent for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine. Others whispered it was Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, another challenger. Some said it was those pesky Democrats, kicking up dirt and slinging mud. But these rumors were never reported  by the press because they were just rumors.

Around that time, I searched Oxendine's campaign reports to see if there were any odd expenses. I noticed one for Investigative Consultants International, an Alpharetta-based private eye firm. Its founder, T.J. Ward, rose to the national spotlight for his involvement with the search for Natalee Holloway, the coed who disappeared during a spring break trip in Aruba.

Jim Galloway yesterday morning reported that James Salzer and Cam McWhirter contacted the Oxendine campaign for clarification about the item. All Tim Echols, the commissioner's campaign manager would tell the reporters was "campaigns routinely hire investigators."

That might be all Echols, who took on the role of campaign manager two weeks ago, will say. But Jeff Breedlove, Oxendine's chief strategist, was a bit more open with CL a few months ago.

In my phone conversation with Breedlove, he said there wasn't anything nefarious or clandestine about the private investigator expenditure. In fact, the strategist said, he hired Investigative Consultants International not to investigate Cagle, but to investigate John Oxendine.

He said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that he routinely hires PIs to investigate potential candidates — his clients — before he joins a campaign. He said he wants to know everything about the candidate he's managing, so he'll know what opponents know. Breedlove also said he won't manage a campaign until he knows his client is legit; every time he takes a job, he said, he puts his family's livelihood on the line.

(It should be noted that Cagle, in his prior gubernatorial campaign disclosure, also appears to have paid someone to uncover information. On Sept. 26, 2008, Cagle's campaign paid $2,000 to a Philadelphia researcher named John Wasilchick for "campaign research." The top Google search result for Wasilchick's name is a Rocky Mountain News article which says he was paid nearly $20,000 by a Colorado Republican gubernatorial campaign to research a Democratic opponent's record on illegal immigration. My attempts to reach Wasilchick were unsuccessful.)

Why didn't I report it? Please don't say it's because we're in the tank for the Oxendine campaign. (I assure you, we're not.) Although interesting, the item wasn't particularly noteworthy (outside from some conversation fodder for political junkies). And though I wanted to write about it, I had other stories to transcribe and report. It also started to feel like I was traveling down a path that would lead me to exactly what Echols told the AJC — yeah, campaigns hire private investigators to uncover information, so what?

Of course, I'll never know if Breedlove was telling the truth — I told him as much and he said he understood. After all, the Oxendine campaign isn't required to disclose what the private investigator uncovered.

So just to add some information to the speculation (or maybe help break a story loose), that's the angle on the whole Oxendine-hired-a-private-investigator story. Or at least the version I got.

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