Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Last Thanskgiving, when most of us were trying to navigate over the river or through the woods, Speaker David Ralston managed to travel with his family “over the pond” to tour the European rail system, at an expense of over $17,000. This expense was funded by an industry lobbyist, James C Brady, and appears to have conformed to Georgia’s existing ethics laws with one exception: Mr. Brady was not a registered lobbyist at the time of the trip, and appears to have missed a deadline for when the trip should have been originally disclosed.
Most of Georgia’s ethics laws are based on a system of disclosures, and the burden of documenting relationships between legislators and lobbyists falls not on the legislator, but the lobbyist. Common Cause Georgia, a bi-partisan ethics watchdog, filed an ethics complaint against Mr. Brady yesterday in Atlanta, noting that he was lobbying Georgia officials prior to registering as a lobbyist, and failed to disclose the Thanksgiving trip prior to a January 5th deadline.
Yet, had Mr. Brady not registered at all, it is quite plausible that this trip would have never become part of the public discussion. The disclosure requirements at the base of Georgia’s ethics laws serve as the opening to public scrutiny so that average Georgians can see who is influencing their legislators other than constituents. Yet, if a lobbyist chooses not to disclose, there is little in the state’s arsenal to police those who choose not to comply.
Georgia’s ethics laws lack key enforcement provisions, and the body with the power to enforce the laws is religiously underfunded. In the coup de grace highlighting the toothlessness of Georgia’s State Ethics Commission last year, Interim House Speaker Mark Burkhalter appointed a man to the board who had an outstanding fine assessed from the same group. His response was that he didn’t have to pay the fine, because he hadn’t been properly served, and they didn’t have the standing to fine him.
Thus, last year, in the wake of multiple ethics scandals involving sex, lobbyists, and sex with lobbyists, the General Assembly patted themselves on the back for passing “tough new ethics legislation”. Yet, it is still entirely permissible under Georgia ethics laws for a legislator to have sexual relations with a lobbyist, even if that lobbyist has bills before his committee. It remains legal for a legislator to be paid by a municipality in his district to lobby the General Assembly he serves in with no written contract or work product. It remains legal for members of the legislature to “consult” for lobbying firms that blatantly sell access to key legislators. And if a legislator should somehow run afoul of the few laws that directly apply to him or her, he is part of a body that is inherently conflicted because at the end of the day, the system is self contained, and is self-regulating.
Georgia does not need stronger ethics laws because our legislators are unethical. It needs stronger ethics laws because the current system is wholly inadequate to police and weed out the unethical. The unethical few have allowed Georgia’s legislature to be painted with a broad brush, a treatment more than one has objected to.
For the legislators who do not like the broad brush, might I recommend a scalpel: Make Georgia’s ethics laws meaningful, and fund a system of enforcement that is beyond the influence of the legislature.