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.
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!”