I see Brunswick, I see France…

July 28, 2011 10:52 am

by Mike Hassinger · 42 comments

Well, I don’t get to go to those places, but Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols does. Echols has apparently decided that “raising the stature of the body to which he is elected” is part of his job. The cost of his ongoing campaign to cover himself in adulation raise that profile has been more than $12,300 in the first half of this year -in addition to his salary of $116k.

Among the highlights of Echols’s Tour de Georgia:

* $1,231.42 for a trip to Savannah to showcase his personal compressed natural gas-fueled car in a St. Patrick’s Day parade;

* $337.62 to Albany for nuclear waste meetings, which coincided with his daughter’s track meet there;

* $79.05 in mileage from his Winterville home to the Woodruff Arts Center because he wore a gold PSC name badge and represented the agency.

* There have been additional trips to Brunswick, St. Simons and Ossabaw islands, some of them including members of his family. 

Echols defends his travels by referring to his personal goal, (which is not a statutory mandate) of increasing “the stature” of the commission:

If I don’t go to Albany and to Brunswick and Savannah and Chattanooga and Augusta and Macon, and all the media markets, it is impossible to me to fulfill my goal of increasing the stature of the commission,” said Echols, who was formerly an adviser to former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and founder of the nonprofit TeenPact and owner of the for-profit Gold Dome Consulting.

Government ethics watchdogs from both ends of the political spectrum criticized the loophole that makes these trips expensable:

William Perry, Common Cause Georgia executive director, doesn’t see a glaring violation of the state’s Ethics in Government Act in Echols’ actions, but he recognizes why the regulator’s business trips have drawn scrutiny.

“Such examples of elected officials traveling at state expense while with their family might give the appearance of impropriety,” Perry said. “I recognize that the PSC performs an essential function, and the public’s awareness of their work is something that definitely needs to be raised.

“However, I think it’s incumbent to make sure that reasonable and relevant expenses are incurred.”

“It’s cases like these why we are pushing for tough ethics reform, so we can close these loopholes like this,” said Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots.

Echols promises that his future campaign trips will be paid for out of campaign funds, the same way his family vacation over the Fourth of July weekend was funded.

Echols said his daughter didn’t travel or stay with him, and that he was lodged in Americus and paid for the hotel out of campaign funds. Yet he maintained he had the right to bill the PSC for the trip if he wanted, saying, “I felt like I did enough business to justify it.”

On that trip, Echols met Patrick Parker, owner of Parker’s gas outlet and convenience store on St. Simons Island. The store’s roof is covered in solar panels, which drew Echols’ interest. That led to the commissioner taking weekend trips to St. Simons in late May and early June, one to plan a news conference about solar energy and the other to hold the media event at the gas station.

Echols’ sons traveled with him on the first trip, and the family stayed in a hotel paid for by campaign funds — $431.48, according to the latest disclosures filed with the state. On the second trip, Echols had his wife and daughter join him. He expensed the mileage, hotel and his meals — $338.06.

Echols has lined up a 10-day trip to France next year to tour some of the country’s 52 nuclear plants and learn how that industry handles spent fuel. He will pay for the trip out of campaign funds rather than expense it.

While we’re on the issue of campaign funds, I seem to recall Echols promising to not accept “a drink of water” from industry lobbyists. While ruling out water, Echols apparently did not rule out accepting campaign cash to pay for a trip to Paris from them, accepting $500 from lobbyist Lewis Massey and another $500 from Perry McGuire, both registered lobbyists.

According to Echols’s campaign disclosures, in the first six months of this year, he paid $11,114,38 to “Gold Dome Consulting Company” which his Personal Financial Disclosure indicates he is a partner in, and which shares an address with his residence. (That sound you hear is eyebrows raising at the Athens Banner Herald, and maybe your own as well.)

Leaving aside the issue of his campaign paying more than $10,000 to a company in which he is an officer, at a minimum, the folks who got that money are supposed to be disclosed, and Echols hasn’t bothered to disclose the end recipients. (pdf).

Finally, under what section of the Ethics in Government Act is a “Traffic Violation Expense,” (probably what you and I call a “ticket,”) eligible for payment out of campaign funds?

At the end of the day, however, you can be sure that Tim Echols understands that when it comes to government, “It’s a spending problem, NOT a revenue problem!”

 

NorthGAGOP July 28, 2011 at 11:00 am

Echol’s learned from one of “the best” – the Ox.

Charlie July 28, 2011 at 11:11 am

“raising the stature of the body to which he was elected”

“traffic violation expense”

“…learned from one of the best – The Ox”

Connect the dots people. How long before that hydrogen powered civic is equipped with blue lights so he can speed to 6pm newscast live shots to raise some stature?

Ken in Eastman July 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm

How long before that hydrogen powered civic is equipped with blue lights so he can speed to 6pm newscast live shots to raise some stature?

It wasn’t for his kids’ soccer games or something? So much for family values.

capitolaccess July 29, 2011 at 10:19 am

Once this whole mess has been reversed engineered, and explanations are given, it will all be “for the children.” You heard it here first.

Jas July 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

Don’t forget the pimping of his dead-eyed TeenPACT kids to the highest bidders every campaign season

Steve Collins July 28, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Depending on their age, TeenPac / Gold Dome Consulting might be violating child labor laws.

SOGTP July 28, 2011 at 11:50 am

This is hilarious. :-)

benevolus July 28, 2011 at 12:22 pm

OK, I have a couple of questions:
- Are there any PSC expenses related to P.R. that would be acceptable? If so, how would they be defined and monitored?
- Why is paying his own consulting company with campaign money a problem? He owns a consulting company and he is supposed to hire his competition to run his own campaign?

Todd Rehm July 28, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I think there is some room for the PSC to get outside Atlanta and for them to seek media for the issues they regulate. But I think it should be driven by the entire PSC with a planned budget.

I don’t know that paying his own company is a problem per se, but when he fails to identify the end recipients for more than $10,000 worth of expenditures, I do believe that is against the law.

Steve Collins July 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm

“Why is paying his own consulting company with campaign money a problem?”

It’s a huge problem. Paying yourself, as a contractor for your own campaign, if not illegal, is extremely inappropriate. There have been other politicians who have been raked over the coals for paying family members to work on their campaigns, e.g. David Scott and Nathan Deal, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a politician who had the balls to just flat out pay himself to work for his campaign. Not even Oxendine did that, so it appears Ox’s apprentice, Echols, has now become the master.

“He owns a consulting company and he is supposed to hire his competition to run his own campaign?”

If he’s running for office himself, and doesn’t want to pay the “competition,” you don’t pay anyone. You are not supposed to pay yourself for the time you work on a campaign – otherwise what would be the hourly rate for door-to-door work?

If this were considered acceptable by reasonable people, you would start seeing a lot of politicians form LLCs, and start paying themselves to work on their own campaigns. I’m sure Nathan Deal and Casey Cagle spend a substantial time strategizing about their reelection efforts, why shouldn’t they start consulting companies and pay themselves a couple of $100k for their efforts.

Besides, it’s not like he’s Stoneridge or Landmark communications. His clients seem to be John Oxendine, Tim Echols and TeenPac. It’s all very incestious.

Even if you thinks it’s acceptable to pay yourself to work on your campaign, the expenses are disclosed in a highly dubious manner. It’s obvious he’s attempted to shield the public and ethic’s watchdogs from the these transactions, by withholding the required information.

Kudos to the Peach Pundit for uncovering this funnel of money.

capitolaccess July 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Just so there is no dispute over Tim’s “competition,” I checked the GA ethics website and the list of Gold Dome Consulting political clients is pretty short.

If you don’t feel checking the webiste, I’ll save you the energy – Gold Dome Consulting’s only political clients are John Oxendine and Tim Echols.

Now, any payments from TeenPact to Gold Dome wouldn’t have to be disclosed. I worked with Echols on the Sunday sales legislation a couple of years ago, so I have a pretty good read on the way he thinks. My guess is, I have no evidence to support my guess other than intuition, that TeenPact is getting some contributions from companies that are regulated by the PSC and then Gold Dome is receiving a consulting fee from TeenPact.

Tiberius July 28, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Clearly, increasing the public’s knowledge of the PSc is code for increasing his own name ID. this is notghing but a way to prep himself for any open statewide races in 2014 or 2018, possibly the Gov’s chair. Of course, that strategy worked so well for Billy Lovett’s gubernatorial campaign.

Remember, it is a 6 year term so he will have to run for re-election in preparation for 2018.

ckingtruth August 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm

He doesn’t have to finish the whole six years. Especially since it seems that he’s going to campaign for the first 4 via the PSC and his “special car”.

I bet if you did a random poll throughout the State and even the areas he has traveled to people might know his name, but still won’t know what he or the PSC does. But ask them about their gas and power bill and you’ll hear plent.

Ed July 28, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Awesome post Mark/Mike.

That said, if there is any place where we can learn about how to handle nuclear energy, France is it. Seriously.

Ken in Eastman July 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Yep, even the French have us on nuclear power. They are the largest exporter of electrical power in Europe.

macho July 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Probably could learn about it on Google, but the information is harder to disseminate without any vineyards around.

Ed July 29, 2011 at 10:42 am

Yeah because Google is the same as actually talking to the people in charge and seeing first hand how things work.

Steve Collins July 28, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Wow! The campaign finance issues are much bigger than the AJC story.

Gold Dome Consulting and Tim Echols are the same entity, there are no other partners. Echols M.O. is this: use the non-profit TeenPac children for the free labor and use the for profit Gold Dome Consulting to make money off the kids working for free. Echols sent out emails to all of the statewide candidates, offering to provide the free TeenPac labor as long as the statewides paid the kids’ expenses and paid Gold Dome Consulting. To my knowledge, the only statewide candidates that paid Tim Echols are John Oxendine and Tim Echols.

I hope the IRS doesn’t find out about this, because he could be putting TeenPac’s tax exempt status in serious jeopardy if he’s using the kids as a for-profit political venture.

macho July 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Sweet, tax-exempt adulation.

jm July 28, 2011 at 9:14 pm

OK, a lot of this seems fishy, and the regulators obviously need regulation. But I’ll accept the logic that looking at how France takes care of nuclear fuel is an appropriate issue for a state like Georgia. But if thats the case, is he bringing along any nuclear scientists….translators (does he even speak French?) …and other policy/law makers to make the trip worthwhile? Or is it just going to be his family? And then seriously…make GA Power pay for the trip, its their plant we’ve got in GA.

SusanColumbus July 28, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Is this the actions of a Conservative or just another politician???

capitolaccess July 29, 2011 at 10:22 am

It’s a revenue problem, NOT a spending problem.

Lo Mein July 28, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Who cares?

capitolaccess July 29, 2011 at 10:15 am

He made a really big deal out of refusing the state car, but after seeing his expenses, that decision doesn’t seem to have the same sacrificial tone.

capitolaccess July 29, 2011 at 10:18 am

There is a side of me who really misses the Ox. His entertainment value seemed almost worth all of his negatives. I’m glad to see that Echols has been handed the torch and look forward to his providing us years of entertainment.

capitolaccess July 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Here is a scary thought – Tim Echols will be the Chairman of the PSC next year. So if you think the ego and expenditures are too high for this freshman member, get ready for a whole new level as Chairman.

The majority of the Commission, for the past three years, had been trying to get the Legislature to pass a bill restoring the Commission’s right to determine its own leadership. Due to a statute, passed by the Democrats in the 90s, the Commission Chair currently rotates.

Although the bill had been three years in the making, and had been tabled in a year prior to his election, Echols had turned the debate into a negative bill about him. He assumed that those who knew him best, his colleagues, would never vote for him to be Chair. The bill to allow the Commission to vote for its own Chair was supported by the leadership in the House, Senate and the Governor. So, Echols enlisted the help of all of the Democrats and some other Republicans to defeat it in the House. The case he made to the members who voted against the bill is that it would deny his rightful accession to the Chair of the PSC and he would be prohibited from advancing his ideas.

Tiberius July 29, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Look at it this way, we will have a year’s worth of entertainment watching the Chairman be overridden (overrode?) on most decisions. As long as you have 3 members, it doesn’t matter who the Chairman is.

timechols July 29, 2011 at 11:41 pm

Anytime we assume that the AJC is telling the entire story, we probably err.

As a new Commissioner elected statewide last November, I have spent the first seven months in office burning up the highways across Georgia. Meeting constituents, discussing energy issues, and getting an earful about power bills mostly—things you would expect to be directed to a Regulator. Recently, naysayers have taken issue with my outreach to our citizens.

Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me voters have a right to expect access to the Public Service Commission. Good grief, there are five of us elected statewide. No other agency has five statewide elected officials. We have one Insurance Commissioner, one Labor Commissioner, one Agriculture Commissioner, to name but a few. But the fact that Georgia’s Legislative Fathers named this Commission the Public Service Commission means they did not intend for these five officials to stay sequestered in comfortable Atlanta offices despite how the media may try to influence that.

To me, being on the Public Service Commission means being accessible to citizens—regardless of where they live in the state or what party they happen to be a member of. That means that I should be inconvenienced, not them—even in how I get there. The state gave me the choice of a new Crown Victoria with fuel card to do my job, or offered to reimburse miles in my 12 year old CNG (compressed natural gas) Civic. I chose to drive the alternative fuel car in an effort to “lead by example.” There would be no criticism about my travel in a state car because there would be no personal reimbursement involved. Not to mention that driving my personal car also saved the state $30,000 in a car purchase.

Some have suggested that taking my wife or an older child with me is inappropriate too. I disagree. While other agency heads have state-paid drivers for their state car, I use a family member—who is not paid at all. And in not one single instance has the state spent a penny on a family member. Not one meal, or even a coke. Only my legitimate state expenses are reimbursed. By having a driver, I can continue to work in the car on the smartphone and have a safer trip. Most know that I have a large family and have been married 28 years. It is important part of who I am, and I believe having them with me from time to time is an asset.

Being a Public Service Commissioner also means protecting and serving consumers. That means understanding the issues. As a new commissioner on a panel of long-serving officials, I have a learning curve that has required me to tour power plants, factories, telephone central offices, university labs, national and regional conferences—all in an effort to get up to speed so that I can fully serve and protect consumers. My travel and preparatory efforts are not putting the PSC over budget.

Finally, as a PSC Commissioner I need to answer consumers and provide solutions to issues they face. That means listening, connecting people to solutions, and having an extensive network of relationships that can help solve problems. Part of the reason I can do this effectively is because I have traveled up and down this state hundreds of times.

The PSC is a relatively unknown entity. I know that from knocking on thousands of doors last year in my elections. Some know that we have regulatory authority over Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light and small telephone companies around the state. It is my goal to make sure that “public service” stays a part of the Public Service Commission, and I cannot do that locked away in an Atlanta office.

macho July 30, 2011 at 12:03 am

Do any of the PSC commissioners have a state car?

Dave Bearse July 30, 2011 at 2:40 pm

“While other agency heads have state-paid drivers for their state car, I use a family member—who is not paid at all”

So what agency are you the head of?

“Not one meal, or even a coke. Only my legitimate state expenses are reimbursed.”

So which is it? Your own room when away with family, or did you pay the multiple occupancy charge out of pocket?

kirkb150 July 30, 2011 at 12:32 am

Mr Echols is only doing what he promised us that he would do in his campeign. If you/we were going to impose limits we should have done so before we put him in office. And I do mean WE, since I was one of the people who gladly used my vote to put him there.

The AJC can be expected to generate readership in a free market system but it’s still sad to see a “sweeps week” type hit pieces like this, which can only cripple the actions of our public servants (including the PSC).

Perhaps instead of criticizing Echol’s exuberance and drive as he does what WE put him in office to do, how about quantifying his effectiveness instead? Or perhaps you should say “the other commissioners could be more effective by emulating Echols?”

In a world of multi-trillion dollar federal government (which I’m NOT a supporter of big government) Echol’s spending seems very reasonable to me… based on the fact we asked him to do it by putting him there!

macho July 30, 2011 at 8:59 am

I need to put my knee high boots on, because it’s getting really thick in here. As the heat has been turned up on this issue, “raising the stature of the PSC” has gone from what may or may not have been a campaign issue to the major theme of his campaign. You’ve now upped the ante, stating the issue was so prominent in his campaign that the voters are contractually bound to allow him to spend endless taxpayer money promoting himself.

You go so far as to say that if the voters were “going to impose limits we should have done so before we put him in office” – simply because all the voters were not present during the Rotary Club meeting where he may or may not have said “raising the stature of the PSC” was a major promise of his.

Here is a link to his campaign website, I couldn’t find “raising the stature of the PSC” anywhere on it, although that will probably change shortly:

http://www.timechols.com/

capitolaccess July 31, 2011 at 9:31 am

This is a fairly conservative blog, with a lot of hardcore types. You’re not going to get any sympathy whining about how hard you have it compared to your mentor, who had a brand-new, chauffeured driven Crown Vic – complete with blue lights. Folks in the private sector somehow manage to complete their jobs without drivers.

The personal “state car” is a perk from a bygone era. It’s a joke to mention, “that driving my personal car also saved the state $30,000 in a car purchase.” If a brand new member of the Commission were to demand a car, the state wouldn’t be buying a new one. There are a bunch of under-utilized fleet cars available with the state. He’d get a used Crown-Vic with a bluebook of $5,000.

His “12 year old CNG” car was bought from an AGL executive. I venture to say every time he turns the ignition in that car his back wallet starts to grow automatically. What is the maximum mileage reimbursement these days – $0.50 a mile? It sure wouldn’t cost the state that much if he’d utilized a used state car – it wouldn’t even be close.

It’s funny how he’s turned his lack of a state car into a sacrifice on his part. Driving the state car would have been a better value to the taxpayers. But, driving a Crown-Vic doesn’t generate the publicity or cash flow that the AGL gas car generated.

With open records, the same focus would be on a state car as a personal car with mileage reimbursement. Anyone could pull mileage reports. If you keep that state car in your possession, you’re under scrutiny each time your ass hits the seat. If he thinks he’s going to be able to hide from the public scrutiny and consumer watchdogs by using a state car, he couldn’t be more wrong.

It’s not the travel per se that’s the issue, it’s the unnecessary travel at taxpayer expense that’s got folks steamed – $25,000 a year is somebody’s salary. Multiple trips to a beach resort town to plan for a press conference at a gas station, a weekend in Savannah during the St. Patrick’s Day, and booking “nuclear waste meetings” in Albany, at a daughter’s track meet, all at taxpayer expense, has a way of sending a really bad impression. I believe the Savannah parade was especially grotesque. Other Commissioners attend that parade, but at their own expense or their campaign’s. To bill the taxpayers for the premier campaign event in the State of Georgia is at best irresponsible.

Speaking of Savannah, State Rep. Sharon Beasley Teague, had a very similar mileage reimbursement problem as Echols a few years ago: http://www.peachpundit.com/2008/02/13/sharon-beasley-teague-in-trouble/

It’s really getting amazing. We are all supposed to be celebrating Tim Echols tax-dollar frugalness because he doesn’t have a personal driver and sacrificed a state car. Oh the humanity, how is he to function without a chauffer?

63ce July 30, 2011 at 8:57 pm

The more I read and hear of and from this guy the more I feel as though I, as well as the majority of voters, were duped into believing that this guy was different from all other politicians. I guess I should have taken the time to delve deeper into his background. I sort of figured that when he & Oxendine parted ways it was a good sign.

I had hopes that the “mover sting” would show him to be different, but all it did was leave a family to unload their belongings without any help, I guess that’s the kind of “service” we can expect from the PSC.

Some questions I’d like to hear the answers to, is he asking utilities to contribute to this teen-pack group as was intimated by another poster? and then having teen-packers doing campaign work for him? can an office holder really use campaign funds to pay for travels? does wearing your nameplate to a birthday party merit reimbursement of expenses of attending? how much of all this travel is directly related to the PSC’s responsibilities versus an ongoing political campaign?

capitolaccess August 1, 2011 at 11:26 am

I can tell you that he’s personally “asked” me to make a major contribution to TeenPact, specifically the TeenPact Golf Tournament. While I politely refused, it never occurred to me, until I read in his disclosures that TeenPact might be paying Echols as a consultant. I also know that most representatives, if not all of them, from the utilities regulated by the PSC have been hit-up for TeenPact contributions. I’ve also been “asked” for a lot more than TeenPact contributions, but any more information would be too revealing, since my job depends on my staying anonymous. All requests have been politely declined. It’s unprecedented behavior at the Commission.

capitolaccess August 1, 2011 at 11:33 am

Somebody please take his name-badge away before he bankrupts the State.

Brian July 31, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Wow !! I can smell the sour grapes from way over here. It is obvious that a conservative who gets out and visits with the citizens can exchange some dangerous ideas with the taxpayers, and you guys are worried that Mr. Echols will start a movement of citizen input. Reading between the lines most of the critics would prefer to keep citizens isolated from their government. Would the complainers prefer that Mr. Echols hole up in an ivory tower and contract an Indian answering firm to take complaints ? It is not the money and you know it. You complainers are worried about citizen involvement, and to complain further about the man spending his OWN money? I hope that Mr. Echols is successful in recruiting more intelligent citizen input to the decision making processes in Georgia. That in itself is a great public service and one which you seem to fear.

capitolaccess August 1, 2011 at 11:20 am

If Echols has started a “movement” on the citizens of Georgia, then Peach Pundit is the Imodium.

ckingtruth August 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Get out among the people. Can he ever do it without a TV camera? I mean really a lot of people don’t know what the PSC does until they see an increase in their power or gas bill based on my personal experience, but they also don’t know much more about it in spite of the more than $12,000 that Echols has spent to “raise the stature”

jim2011 August 1, 2011 at 9:55 am

Tim has taken a real whippin here, he’s a good man. Nobody knows more about energy issues. He is the smartest man I know. The public knows all about the PSC because of Tim.

He ought to go on offensive. If I were him…I’d request that the state ethics people, the Attorney General, the GBI, the supreme court, local sheriff or anybody else, open up an investigation into my campaign finance reports, my tax returns, Gold Dome’s checkbook and TeenPact’s finances. This would clearly show that all of the transactions were okay. Once I was proved innocent…this story by the liberal media would be eliminated.

He’s being crucified for bringing the PSC to the people. Put the “public” back into the Public Service Commission. If it were me, I’d require that all of our politicians spend all of their budgets getting out and meeting the people. The last thing we need is a bunch of liberals in Atlanta sitting around passing more laws.

capitolaccess August 1, 2011 at 11:32 am

This post has to be a joke, or you are crazy. The last thing Echols wants is any authorities sniffing around his campaign account or Gold Dome Consulting.

It’s much easier to prove his campaign finance problems from a black and white standpoint. The expenses are less straightforward, and up to the press and the public to simply give it the smell test. I guess it’s okay to charge the taxpayers for the drive to your daughters track meet, if you spoke with someone in the bleachers, about nuclear waste, in-between the starter’s gun.

I’ve always wondered how a bunch of people would knowingly drink cyanide laced Kool-Aide, just because a “leader” gave it to them. From reading this blog, I’m starting to get enlightened.

Todd Rehm August 1, 2011 at 11:41 am

It was actually Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid. Just so you know.

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