Today’s Courier Herald Column:
On July’s primary ballot, Georgians will have the opportunity to register their opinion on whether legislators should be limited to receiving gifts of up to $100 from lobbyists. Public awareness of the need for ethics reform is growing, and a cap on gratuities is the preferred vehicle of choice at the moment.
Addressing the State GOP convention last month, House Speaker David Ralston pushed back, stating that those pushing for ethics reform were either elite media or liberal democratic groups. GOP activists were somewhat surprised to learn they belonged to one or both groups, and not only placed the item on the primary ballot but also passed a resolution calling for meaningful ethics reform.
State Representative Buzz Brockway of Gwinnett, a freshman member of Ralston’s House, penned an Op-Ed for published at PeachPundit.com over the weekend, arguing that a gift cap does not solve the problem. Titled “The Gift Cap As A Magic Wand”, he argues that the gift cap as proposed won’t change much. Instead, he argues “let’s make sure reform gets done right: no symbolism over substance.”
Brockway was one of Georgia’s first political bloggers well before he was a State Representative. Ethics has long been one of his strongest topics. As such, he should not be viewed as someone who is defending the status quo, but attempting to ensure that this round of ethics reform is not the whitewashed symbolism that has occurred during previous attempts.
During the 2010 session of the General Assembly, most legislators patted themselves on the back for passing comprehensive ethics reform which was a pure act of symbolism. Additional reporting requirements were added to candidates and lobbyists, with much additional administrative work added to the “Campaign Finance and Transparency Commission”, the group formerly known as the State Ethics Commission.
The Orwellian name change was the flip side of the symbolism. Should someone actually figure out how to navigate the newly broken system to find a government official guilty of misconduct, he or she could not be said to have been fined by the “Ethics Commission”.
Furthermore, those fines appear to be voluntary and without consequence. Michael Smith is running for State House as a Democrat in Cobb County, despite having $750 in outstanding fines from his 2008 race. He told the Marietta Daily Journal that he hasn’t paid the fines because he doesn’t have any money. Yet he was able to pay the $400 qualifying fee to run for office again, undaunted by the outstanding fine.
The 2010 law added additional responsibilities to the commission, which then saw its budget cut. When the Executive Secretary of the commission tried to issue subpoenas to investigate an ethics complaint against the Governor, her salary was cut and her assistant’s position was eliminated. When she protested, her “resignation” was accepted. No subpoenas were subsequently issued, and the most of the complaints continue “under investigation”.
The Governor, Speaker, and other legislators continue to point to Georgia receiving a top 10 ranking in ethics standards when the 2010 bill was passed. They do not appreciate a follow up ranking issued this year that ranked Georgia dead last in potential for corruption by a group related to the one that issued the previous high rating. While they continue to blame the media member who assisted the group in calculating Georgia’s standards, they ignore the fact that the latter ranking went beyond what is required and looked at enforcement.
If Georgia’s ethics laws are lacking in any single area, ability to enforce laws and standards and hold those who violate them accountable is a glaring weakness.
The Governor’s office told the AJC’s Chris Joyner that they don’t get credit for instituting a total gift ban. When challenged with news that their direct appointees received $25,000 in gifts from lobbyists in spite the ban, the Governor’s office simply stated they had reminded the offenders of the ban.
The legislators continue to rely on a self-policing system which is fundamentally broken. The scandal that brought down the previous speaker was the culmination of years of “common knowledge”. The current ethics charges against Rules Chairman Don Balfour are over items that have been publicly documented for years but required private citizens to file ethics complaints and multiple media accounts before Senate action ensued.
Gift caps may help solve some of the perception problems. A system of independent oversight would go much farther to striking the root of the real problems.
State Representative Austin Scott filed a resolution during his last year before moving to Congress that would allow for state wide grand juries to investigate political corruption. The funding and oversight of which would be out of the direct lines of political manipulation.
The resolution, which would require a constitutional amendment, should be re-introduced and passed. The public would receive assurances that there is a process where valid claims can be investigated and adjudicated. Elected officials would no longer have to fear an 11th hour filing of a bogus ethics charge during a campaign.
Meaningful ethics reform is no longer about symbolism. Enforceability and Accountability are lacking in Georgia’s current process. They must be added in a meaningful way for Georgians to restore faith in our state government.