Would The Last Employee To Leave The State Ethics Commission Please Turn Out The Lights?

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Monday we dealt with the state of the Georgia Ethics Commission and the elimination of one position while slashing the director’s salary by 30%, ultimately leading to her resignation. The timing of such cuts is suspect; due to the work director Stacey Kalberman was performing – specifically preparing subpoenas to investigate complaints against Governor Deal’s gubernatorial campaign. Thus, the cuts have mostly been viewed as politically fueled, as they are any time ethical charges are made against a powerful elected official, veiled or direct.

The bigger picture that Georgia must address, however, is how does one properly maintain a system of checks and balances in a government where power is quite centralized, and can the State Ethics Commission, as currently chartered and staffed, adequately perform its mission?

Speaker of the House David Ralston had this exchange with Atlanta’s WXIA 11Alive News:

11Alive: To what degree what’s happening here signal a lack of seriousness about ethics?

Ralston: “I think that’s totally not true. We have moved forward, I think, in strengthening some of our ethics laws here in Georgia.”

11Alive: “Does it make sense to have strong ethics laws when you don’t have personnel to enforce them?”

Ralston: “Well, I don’t think there’s going to be an issue with them not having personnel to enforce it.”

11Alive: “They Have One Person now.”

Ralston: “Well, I’m assuming they will look at vacancies that have occurred by way of resignation.”

Interesting. David Ralston became speaker because of a total failure of ethics of the House leadership. The men who were former Speaker, President Pro Tem, and Majority Leader just two years ago no longer serve in the Georgia House. Yet the central ethical issues involved during their reign – sexual relationships between members of the legislature and legislators carrying legislation for their “special friends” – were not addressed in the ethics reform Ralston mentioned above.

What was included were additional reporting requirements to the Ethics Commission, increasing their administrative workload. Simultaneously, their budget was cut. Kalberman’s resignation and the elimination of her chief assistant, the ethics commission now stands at one person to receive disclosure forms for elected officials and lobbyists, as well as investigate and discharge any complaints which are filed. And the Speaker, who came to power because of a major ethics scandal within his own party, doesn’t foresee an issue with having sufficient personnel to discharge the duties of the Commission.

With that kind of chutzpah, one should readily await the press release touting the hiring of Kalberman’s replacement, which will no doubt be headlined “Georgia Ethics Commission Doubles Staff Size To Ensure Ethical Government.” Ralston has done a remarkable job steadying the House since he took the gavel, but on this issue, a clear blind spot remains.

Real ethics enforcement cannot be accomplished by self policing when true money and power are involved. Elected officials should also desire the true independent check, because any allegation can be made to look worse if it can be charged that the process which cleared a baseless charge was tainted by those named in a complaint.

Those who resist ethics reforms often point to the last gubernatorial primary, where ethics dominated issues between Karen Handel and Nathan Deal, charging that some are still trying to fight the last settled primary. There was, however, another gubernatorial candidate who also made ethics a central issue of his campaign, before he switched races and ultimately won a seat in Congress.

Austin Scott introduced an ethics reform package in the Georgia House at the beginning of the 2009 session, well before the ethical problems in that body came to light. He credits his bill to former legislator Barbara Bunn, who introduced it originally in the 1990’s. His proposal was to remove the current responsibility of investigating complaints from the state ethics commission, which is directly funded by the legislature, and turning the process over to a statewide grand jury.

The benefit of that process would be true independence, in both funding and control. Furthermore, politicians should like it because baseless charges (as judged by an independent grand jury) would be dismissed without ever becoming public, thus avoiding the many current headlines of “ethics charges filed against…”, many of which never get to a first hearing.

Georgia needs a better system to enforce its ethics laws. But until public will forces legislators to change the system, the legislators themselves should at least publicly acknowledge that one person is not sufficient to accomplish the job, even for minimal self-policing.

16 comments

  1. Three Jack says:

    you mean the ‘georgia government transparency and campaign finance commission’ which apparently no longer wants anything to do with ethics since it dropped the word from it’s title.

    i like the idea of an independent grand jury, but am still curious as to why the sonny perdue created office of inspector general is not looking into deal’s ethical lapses. if oig has no interest then let’s shut down this useless office just as they did the ggtcfc by running off all employees.

  2. Charlie,

    I don’t purport to be an expert on state ethics laws, but from my observations of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly the Georgia Ethics Commission) over the last 17-18 years is that they respond mostly to complaints made from individual citizens. Most happen to be from political enemies and crackpot gadflies like George Anderson of Rome, Georgia.

    I ask these things respectfully and not as a loaded questions, but what has the traditional size of this staff been over the years? Are the five attorneys that make up the Commission not able to handle the complaints and alleged violations that come before them?

    Why is everyone pointing their fingers at the Commission’s Chairman and not asking questions about the staffer that has since resigned her post? Randy Evans, who is an undeniable expert on Georgia Election Law, has stated that none of his clients have ever been subpoenaed in this manner. When the commission has traditionally had questions, they ask them. As a representative of the Deal campaign, he says he’s willing to answer any questions put before them.

    • Charlie says:

      Randy Evans has a long history in Georgia Republican circles. He’s also on the payroll of Governor Deal’s campaign committee, as a defense lawyer. Defense lawyers usually don’t get to be the judge too.

      As for why we’re not “asking questions” about Kalberman, it’s generally because she produced documentation demonstrating she was preparing subpoenas and was only then told of the critical need of 1/3 of her salary and one of her two remaining staffers to remain in business. Millsaps created the need to ask questions of others, and using your sock puppet alias on behalf of the Governor to trash a state employee who was in good standing until she asked the wrong questions is pretty dispicable, even for you.

      As for the size of the staff of the “please don’t call it an ethics” commission, I’ll be sure to deal with that in a future column. Thanks for asking.

      • Icarus Pundit,

        I admit I’m a sock puppet alias and that I have a deep and abiding respect for Governor Deal and that I seek to defend him, his family, and his staff (yeah state employees) against bitter “sore losers” like yourself. However, I do my posting at my own discretion and not on anyone’s “behalf.”

        I reread my first statement and don’t really see where I “trash(ed) a state employee.” However, I’m sure a lot of Georgians aren’t crying over a “state employee’s” salary being reduced from $125,000 to $85,000 a year. Heck, that’s more than my salary and I’d bet a newspaper scribe and blogger like yourself. If she saw so much merit in George Anderson’s accusation, could she not have lived on a measly $85,000 salary at least until she finished this investigation?

        If the enforcement of election laws and the administration of ethics complaints in this state are inadequate, please use the power of your typewriter and change them. However, in your upcoming column, please tell us how the state has benefited over the years from having to address Mr. Anderson’s myriad of complaints. Most being petty, insignificant mistakes on state financial disclosure documents, and usually resulting in nothing more than a perfunctory correction by the candidate.

        And since Randy Evans’ experience cannot be taken into account, how many other lawyers for candidates and campaigns over the years have been subpoenaed by staff and how many have sought or received FBI assistance in forming their investigations?

        You make accusations against Patrick but never disclose to your readers that he informed staff of his intentions to recuse himself early on.

        • Three Jack says:

          “You make accusations against Patrick but never disclose to your readers that he informed staff of his intentions to recuse himself early on.”

          it’s easy to recuse oneself from a case that the recuser knows will never see the light of day. we need an ethics investigation of the commission formerly known as the ethics commission (did they come up with a cute little symbol like prince when he changed his name to ‘the artist formerly known as….?).

          • Dave Bearse says:

            Someone with the actual intention to recluse himself “early on” would have formally done so when first presented with subpoenas for signature. His talk of recusing himself is the proverbial smoke blown up the arse.

      • rightofcenter says:

        Charlie aka Icarus,
        My you have some thin skin. I re-read the original post myself – any reasonable person would have a very difficult time finding the “trashing of a state employee” in what lukethedrifter wrote. I do have a question for all the experts on this board, however – no one ever mentions Kent Alexander, who is a Democrat and hardly a Deal-toady. So all this alleged bad stuff is happening in the “please don’t call it an ethics” commission, and this former U. S. attorney and member of the opposing party just lets it go on without addressing it? Really?

  3. objective says:

    just to add, the commission members themselves most likely cannot afford to work for the commission- without pay- for the amount of time it takes to investigate/prosecute/administer. that’s why you need attorneys on staff

  4. I know Ralston is a nice guy to the press and all, but he has hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes over a decade. Kept blaming it on a bad secretary. That he’s the most ethical guy up there does not say much for the operation.

    • Todd Rehm says:

      Chris, it’s my understanding that Speaker Ralston has paid all the taxes owed from the multi-year period in which a trusted employee was stealing from him and showing him false documents to cover the fact that she wasn’t paying the taxes and bills. An article in the AJC on 4/29/2008 seems to indicate that he had paid everything owed.

      It’s fair game to mention past troubles, but your statement reads as though there are current outstanding taxes, which the public record does not indicate to be the case.

    • Have we not discussed the fact that an employee at David Ralston’s law firm was convicted of embezzling money set aside to pay taxes enough or are you conveniently forgetting information to trash Speaker Ralston? And is the fact that it took David several years to pay off every penny of that tax liability a bad thing or does it show a man determined to do the right thing?

      “Keep blaming it on a bad secretary” is a pretty underhanded way to dismiss a legal conviction in court of someone who embezzled that money.

      I really expected better of you, Chris.

  5. Quaker says:

    As seldom as I agree with Jim Wooten, I know he was right 15 years ago when he insisted that Georgia’s political mess won’t be cleaned up until we have a true two party system here. (Although I would argue that a multiple party system, perhaps the parliamentary system which evolved in other democracies while the US remaines stuck in the 18th Century, would be better.) Don’t ever bet on a politician in a position of power doing the right thing without pressure.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wooten’s writing little these days of any Georgia political messes tied to state Leadership.

  6. saltycracker says:

    As it takes time to gain power & become ethically challenged in office why hasn’t any legislator introduced term limits ?

    That would free up the “committee” making it easier to go after the “inexperienced” or multi-office ethically challenged.

  7. Let’s talk about the obvious for just a moment. I think there are some things upon which we might agree.

    1 – Regardless of motivation or intent, the actions taken regarding the ethics commission appear suspect at first glimpse.

    2 – The timing of the actions taken make the assumption that there is wrong-doing a logical thought.

    3 – Elected officials should not just guard against impropriety; they must also avoid the appearance of impropriety whenever possible. There have been no compelling facts shown to even suggest that such a reason exists.

    3 – At the very least, the actions taken are based upon poor political decisions. There may have been additional considerations in the decisions which have been concealed from the public.

    4 – It is the responsibility of those who made the decision and took the steps to reduce the resources of the ethics commission to explain those actions and to return the ethics commission to its previous state. Failure to do so, will obviously raise more questions and make the assumption of wrong-doing nearly inescapable.

    5 – When additional personnel are in place with the ethics commission, if the charges being investigated by Stacey Kalberman are not fully reviewed and, if necessary, pursued then there will be political consequences. In addition, it will be the death knell for this particular system.

    6 – The fact that this type of devastating impact can be made on the ethics commission this rapidly is a clear indicator that it is broken.

    Finally, a recommendation to elected Georgia Republicans who will be tempted to circle the wagons. Ken Carroll’s first Law of Politics: Never defend the indefensible.

    Do not forget that one of the reasons Republicans were able to make widespread gains so quickly in this state was the stench of more than a century of Democrat corruption. Every Republican scandal and every Republican that lends aid to the miscreant makes voters less likely to vote for the GOP brand. Help your party by doing the right thing; you do not help when you cover up unethical actions.

Comments are closed.