Senate Ethics Committee To Reveal If It Has Teeth

Today’s Courier Herald Column

Boiled down to basic facts, the ethics complaint to be discussed at Wednesday’s Senate Ethics Committee meeting are fairly straightforward.  There are a series of expense reimbursements claiming  mileage to and from State Senator Don Balfour’s Snellville home each of the 50 days the legislature was in session plus 126 days they were not during 2011.  Several of those days which he claimed mileage to the capitol he is also reported by lobbyists to have been entertained at their expense in other states.

The mileage reports claimed from Snellville to Atlanta on the days when Balfour was reported out of state on back to back days are clear violations of submitting false expense claims.  Each expense report includes an affidavit signed by the legislator stating the expenses are true and correct. It is extremely doubtful that Balfour drove to his home each of the days he claims while simultaneously renting a $2,100 per month midtown Atlanta condo ostensibly so he can be closer to his office during session.  It is ludicrous to presume that Balfour drove from Snellville to Atlanta on days that lobbyists were spending entertainment dollars on him in Texas.

It is with these facts that the Senate will begin discussions today.  What facts remain unclear is what they can actually do about this.

The Committee On Assignments – the group that resulted from the Republican Caucus stripping Casey Cagle of his authority to appoint committee chairmen – could strip Balfour of his Chairmanship of the Rules Committee and the virtual veto power over all legislation that comes with it.  Yet despite these abuses having been clear for months they have chosen not to do so.

The Senate Ethics Committee’s role is even less clear.  Senators privately claim they are not even sure what power they have in this case.  Some speculate that because the complaint was filed by a citizen and not a member of the legislature that they don’t have the power to act on it.  Others are not sure the committee has the power to do any more than refer the complaint to either the Georgia Campaign Finance Transparency Commission (which was formerly known as the State Ethics Commission) or to the Attorney General.

The Campaign Finance Transparency Commission is already backlogged with ethics cases that they can barely find time to dismiss.  Given their budget appears to be cut anytime they choose to move an investigation forward, it remains doubtful that they can successfully discharge this case with any finding upon the obvious facts.  Plus, the complaint regarding Balfour is not a campaign related complaint, but a charge that he has violated Georgia law by submitting false expense reports.  That is a matter generally reserved for the Attorney General.

While Georgia’s former Attorney General prosecuted Ralph David Abernathy under a previous Governor, the budget of the AG’s office has since been realigned due to cuts.  The Attorney General no longer has a standing investigative unit. While there is language in Georgia’s official code that prohibits investigating the legislature when it is in session, Sine Die was at the end of March and they’re out until January, just for the record.  Without investigators to look into the matter further, the responsibility for bringing a case to the office for disposition is also available to one of two other Georgia entities who do maintain an investigative unit: The GBI or the Department of Audits.

While many can request the GBI begin an investigation, only the Governor has the power to direct an investigation.  The Department of Audits ultimately reports to the legislature, and the current agency head is planning a June retirement.  While the Governor can make an interim appointment as successor, ultimately the legislature has to ratify the appointment.  Note earlier in this column about the defendant having a virtual veto power over the path of legislation and you’ll see the problem with this method.

What remains significant about the Balfour case isn’t the amount of money involved, but the arrogance enabling the abuse of power that is involved.  This arrogance breeds from the fact that Georgia’s current ethics laws make it virtually impossible to regulate the activities of legislators within ethical or even legal boundaries.

Every Senator on this Ethics Committee needs to be asked publicly, on the record, as to what the authority and potential actions could be taken, along with the potential consequences that can result.  Anything less than clear and precise answers will prove the point that proponents of ethics reform of Georgia bestowed upon the deaf ears of legislators during the last session.  Georgia’s ethics laws are insufficient and unenforceable.  The legislature is incapable of regulating itself.  Severe changes in enforceability and accountability are needed to improve Georgia’s last in the country ranking with respect to potential for institutional corruption.

19 comments

  1. Calypso says:

    “Senate Ethics Committee To Reveal If It Has Teeth”

    It doesn’t have a mouth to have even a voice, how could one expect it to have teeth?

  2. bowersville says:

    The Committee On Assignments – the group that resulted from the Republican Caucus stripping Casey Cagle of his authority to appoint committee chairmen – could strip Balfour of his Chairmanship of the Rules Committee and the virtual veto power over all legislation that comes with it. Yet despite these abuses having been clear for months they have chosen not to do so.

    Right there is your problem Georgia. I argued extensively as to why I was opposed to a Committee running the Senate. One change of Chairman, one opposing Senator changing sides and the whole Committee on Assignments topples with the balance of power shifting. So a change in Chairman didn’t happen and it won’t.

    A committee is never held responsible as a group of individuals, there’s too much wiggle room back in the district. Voters don’t vote for a Committee, voters vote for a Senator. Voters don’t vote against the Senate as a whole, voters vote for individual Senators. I said it then and I’ll say it again, the only vote I can cast is for my Senator and Lt. Governor. I can’t hold Balfour accountable with my vote. I can’t hold Senator Williams, Senator Rogers nor any of the others on the Committee on Assignments accountable with my vote.

    I warned against this…many scoffed, many were opposed and Debbie Dooley and the Atlanta TEA Party that backed the coup against the Lt. Governor and were supportive of the Committee on Assignments…well you got what you deserve…NOTHING but pure
    unadulterated in your face type of no accountability. The rest of us could at least vote for or against Lt. Governor Cagle for not removing Balfour, but since I can’t, I don’t care what Balfour does. Not with the type of rules now at play in the Senate where holding on to power is more important than accountability.

    • ryanhawk says:

      You would have a very good point if the Lt. Gov were to make a statement about removing Balfour. I won’t be holding my breath…

      • bowersville says:

        We all have a very good point if… If only. If only. It’s always somebody else. Like I said the whole system of the Senate is no accountability. If only….

        • ryanhawk says:

          No, it’s not always somebody else — in this case it is the Lt. Governor. If the Lt. Gov. aspires to lead the Senate and wants to demonstrate his capacity to do so in a way that is superior to what we are getting from the “Committee on Assignments”, this is a golden opportunity. Where is he?

        • bowersville says:

          So the Lt. Governor elected by the people of Georgia to make the tough decisions in the Senate such as committee chairmanships is stripped by a coup of the authority to make committee chairman assignments and the Committee on Assignments that has the authority to replace Don Balfour does nothing and it’s Cagle fault. Gotcha. That makes sense. Or does it?

          • ryanhawk says:

            The only thing I blame Cagle for is his failure to act. Again, where is he? ***Crickets****

            I really just wanted to bust you for your mancrush on Cagle. He’s demonstrated exactly the same level of leadership as have the others, which is to say none. I’m not defending, or cheerleading, anyone in this scenario. You?

            • brasstownhigh says:

              Wow – that’s laughable. Let’s recap.

              There’s an allegation against Senator Balfour. The only group who has the power to remove him from his chairmanship is the Committee on Assignments (Tommie Williams and Chip Rogers, et al.) And your statement is “The only thing I blame Cagle for is his failure to act”.

              “Failure to act” when his power to do so was stripped away by the people who now won’t take any action. Great logic kiddo.

              • ryanhawk says:

                Looks like Cheerleader #1 pulled a hamstring.

                Casey continues to wield an enormous amount of power and if wished to use his power to see Balfour off he could certainly do so. Casey is not alone among elected officials in this regard and the only reason he’s been singled out in this discussion is because Cheerleader #1 showed up to toot Casey’s horn. And unfortunately for all of us, Casey’s silence leaves us nothing to celebrate.

              • ryanhawk says:

                I would also add that Casey Cagle has been Balfour’s colleague in the Senate and/or his leader as Lt. Governor for 18 years. And not one word of complaint from Casey in all that time. So yes, Casey is as much to blame for this as any other State Senator in a leadership position.

                • bowersville says:

                  Looks like Cheerleader #1 pulled a hamstring.

                  I really just wanted to bust you for your mancrush on Cagle.

                  NUTS..why present any other response to a total lack of logic?
                  Goodbye.

                  • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

                    I think that ryanhawk is trying to say is that even though Cagle has been stripped of his power, he still can wield the use of the “bully pulpit” as Lt. Governor, who is historically not only one of the most visible political figures in the Senate, but also in all of state government.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Of course your not, unless you’re suicidal. Cagleyou should recall is the guy that sent legislation limiting lobbyist gifts from the hopper directly to Balfour’s Rules Committee for burial.

  3. Dave Bearse says:

    “It is ludicrous to presume that Balfour drove from Snellville to Atlanta on days that lobbyists were spending entertainment dollars on him in Texas.”

    It’s even more ludicrous to presume that Balfour drove from Snellvile to Atlanta AND BACK each of those days. Guess he was never away overnight during any of the junkets since he returned home from out of state each day.

  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “Senate Ethics Committee To Reveal If It Has Teeth”

    Of course the Senate Ethics Committee has teeth…

    …The Senate Ethics Committee has dentures so that it can chew its food, its real teeth fell out years ago, too many “sweets” (i.e., money and gifts from lobbyists representing mega-corporate interests).

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