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.