Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Last. Dead Last.
A new report which compares each state’s ethics laws has determined Georgia’s laws are the absolute worst in the country for preventing a culture which incubates public corruption. The Center For Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International joined forces to form the State Integrity Investigation. Their findings give Georgia a grade of “F”, but it is the grade against all other peers placing Georgia at the bottom final ranking that really leaves a mark.
Georgia lawmakers have long touted high rankings from the Center for Public Integrity as why ethics reform were not needed. And on paper, Georgia does have some of the most stringent requirements for transparency. At least on the surface.
Digging deeper, as the State Integrity Investigation does, it quickly becomes clear that these requirements are easily skirted and ignored. Georgia has virtually no resources for audit or enforcement of existing laws. The system is designed for self-reporting, with little fear of being caught or fined if the responsible party fails to file a report, omits key items from a disclosure, or files purposely false information altogether.
In the last 4 years, Georgia has had a House Speaker who had an affair with a lobbyist for whom he sponsored a bill that would have granted her employer hundreds of millions of dollars for a natural gas pipeline. We had a candidate for Governor with 10 Political Action Committees set up in Alabama to illegally launder campaign funds from a single donor whom he regulated as insurance commissioner. We had a state legislator who dated a lobbyist and got her client a new building at the University she represented, and then threatened the University when they later fired her. He now is the State Labor Commissioner.
We have a Governor who had to file and re-file required disclosures throughout his campaign because critical information was either omitted or incorrect. When the director of the ethics commission prepared subpoenas to serve on the Governor and sought help from the FBI for forensic accounting, her staff was gutted and she was replaced.
We have a Senate Rules Chairman who has traveled to Israel with a lobbyist whom he listed on the official program as a Senate staffer. He uses his campaign account to fund a $2,100 per month condo just 30 miles from his home, yet continues to bill taxpayers for per diem for over 100 days when the legislature is in session. He bills for mileage to and from his home every working day, including the days he is not even in the state.
And we have a current Speaker, elected by his peers after scandal brought down the entire former House leadership team, who took his family on a Thanksgiving vacation to Europe at the expense of lobbyists which went unreported for months. The $17,000 expenditure – roughly the same amount of a base legislator’s pay – was so that the Speaker could learn about trains and transit.
The coup de grace of demonstrating how toothless and unimportant the state ethics commission has become comes from the commission itself. During Mark Burkhalter’s brief tenure as speaker, he appointed Atlanta Attorney Robert Proctor to the commission. Proctor had an outstanding fine from the commission of $6,000. When asked about the fine, he indicated that he did not have to pay it. He acknowledged that he had known of the fine for years, but argued that he had not been properly served notice, and the commission could not enforce their demand for payment. That’s the same commission he was serving on. The completely toothless one.
The research done to determine Georgia fails with ethics was done by former Atlanta Journal and Constitution investigative reporter Jim Walls, among the best in the business. He now runs his own website, AtlantaUnfiltered.com, and I encourage you to read his full report here.
The reaction from the legislature is typical of a hit dog. They’re hollering.
Unable to defend Georgia’s unenforceable ethics laws or their refusal to do anything about it, legislators are attacking the messenger. They are attacking the report as one done by a “blogger”, and suggesting they prefer rankings done by “experts”.
Georgians are well aware of reports done by experts used by the legislature. They are usually the ones that justify a large economic benefit for public expenditures, which often fail to materialize after the taxpayer money has been spent. (see, Gwinnett Braves Stadium; see, Go Fish Georgia; see, every state funded hall of fame…)
Georgia’s government is a system designed by the insiders, for the insiders. From the Yazoo Land Scandal to Eugene Talmadge stealing the money “for you” to modern day, Georgia’s government has always been set with a default setting of taking care of the elected officials and the well connected first, and taxpayers if convenient.
Republicans once ran on changing this system. The current speaker was elevated to his position to change this system. Now all profit from this system, and pronounce it good and just.
There are no problems with ethics in Georgia if you ask members of the legislature. There is only a problem with bloggers who keep bringing up unfortunate details that they would prefer you not dwell upon.
So please do not dwell on the above. Please don’t share it with a friend. Please do not take any anger about the current system to the polls during this July’s primaries. It is the only way to preserve the system’s status quo. And there are a lot of Georgia’s leaders who are quite comfortable with the status quo.