Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Politics is often called “Hollywood for ugly people”. The intersection of money and power produces an intoxicating allure for those who are the key players, who need not be beautiful nor exceptionally talented to attract admirers, followers, and sycophants. Everyone wants to be the friend of the key players. Proximity and relationship to a key politician is a status symbol within the political world, and a lot of money changes hands each year to ensure access and position.
Elected officials at the center of these circles often become desensitized to the differences from this world and the one that those of us who aren’t the target of such spending. For most of us, if we were offered a trip with food, lodging, and other perks, we would probably want to know who was paying for this, as well as have some understanding of why. Such is apparently not the case for Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
As reported by WXIA 11Alive News, Kemp along with five other elected officials attended a charity quail hunt in South Georgia benefitting The Sportsman’s Pantry. The cost of the trip was covered by three lobbyists, and properly disclosed according to Georgia law. Kemp is apparently unpleased with the disclosure.
“I wouldn’t have taken the trip if I’d known it was going to be disclosed that somebody was paying for a quail hunt for me,” he said in an interview with the Atlanta station. That is, at least, a brutally honest response, so I guess points should be awarded for that. So how does a public official come to arrive at a quail hunt with hunting fees plus food and lodging covered?
“I was just asked to come hunt and be the celebrity guest” is his answer, noting he didn’t really ask who would be paying for the trip.
Again, a brutally honest answer to a question about an event he attended where he did nothing illegal or unethical according to Georgia laws. This is not in dispute.
The idea that once elected, our politicians become “celebrities” should concern us all in a world where stars are lavished with seemingly limitless gifts and gratuities. Not all celebrity politicians are created equal. A freshman member of the house may receive little attention from the lobbying community. Powerful committee chairs and statewide elected officials – those with real power that can affect legislation and appropriation – have lobbyists that will cater to their every need.
Lobbyists provide a service in educating members of a citizen legislature about the finer points of legislation and how it will impact groups of citizens and industries which they represent. But for many to have the opportunity to present their case to legislators and other elected officials, they must first build a relationship and sense of trust with those same officials. This comes with a price, and lobbyists are charged with finding out what events or activities the elected officials most enjoy in order to set the venue in the official’s most natural habitat. This can be a hunting trip, NASCAR event, steak dinner, of golf outing.
Hunting trips, golf outings, and other events are often designed to benefit charities, but also set with entrance fees to ensure that it is a VIP experience for those who plunk down significant checks to rub elbows with others of the well heeled set. Elected officials routinely get invites to such events at no charge, giving them the same opportunity to mix and mingle with the same powerful people who often fund campaigns and can help local grass roots efforts.
But the usually unspoken expectation that these gifts should not be disclosed once again highlights a fundamental flaw with Georgia’s current ethics laws. Elected officials have no burden of disclosure, and no penalty for accepting gifts and gratuities that go undisclosed. They may accept freebies from any who offer, and grow so accustomed to the practice that some no longer to bother to ask, or presumably care, who is paying. Such is the celebrity mindset.
Georgia continues to operate a political system that allows unlimited gifts to elected officials while placing no responsibility or accountability on those same officials to acknowledge what they receive. So long as this is allowed to continue, Georgia will continued to be served by celebrities instead of public servants.