Georgia’s “Ethics Committee” Has Busy Friday

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

 The State Campaign Finance Transparency Commission, formerly known as the State Ethics Commission before its Orwellian name change, awoke from its great slumber on Friday and rendered opinions on several long standing cases.  The current Governor’s five pending ethics complaints were not yet ready for presentation, but complaints against two of his former opponents received opinions from the panel.  A man who wasn’t a lobbyist when he took the Speaker to Europe but decided he was when he returned also had his day before the body.

Former Governor Roy Barnes was cleared for not filing lobbyist disclosure reports while representing a client in 2007.  He had registered as a lobbyist as an abundance of caution, but later received an advisory opinion from the commission stating he did not have to register as a lobbyist based on the activities he was conducting.  His defense consisted of asking why he had to file lobbyist disclosure reports with the commission if he had been advised by the commission that he didn’t have to register as a lobbyist.  Apparently common sense prevailed.

Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine was not as fortunate.  The Commission voted unanimously to move his case to an administrative law judge for disposition.  Oxendine has a 30 day period where he can agree to a settlement in the case.

His troubles stem from 2009 when his campaign received $120,000 in donations from 10 Political Action Committees set up by the State Mutual Insurance Company and its affiliate Admiral Life.  Each PAC, set up in Alabama and thus themselves not under jurisdiction of Georgia campaign laws, had the same address.  Each check was written for the same amount.

Despite the fact that these contributions accounted for roughly one quarter of Oxendine’s total campaign donations at the time, the campaign claims that they did not notice the similarities in the checks, and made no effort to learn who was behind them.  The commission apparently decided that this defense did not pass the smell test, with Commission Chairman Attorney Elisabeth Murray Obertein  telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution “Same address, same amounts, checks drawn from the same bank, all signed by the same person…The campaign should have recognized they came from affiliated PACs.”

Oxendine delayed a ruling from the commission during the 2010 campaign, citing that the charges were political in nature and thus were designed to shed negative light on his campaign close to the election.  He successfully won that reprieve, but may have let the two insurance companies off the hook for their culpability in the process. 

The Rome News-Tribune is reporting that the State Mutual Insurance Company and the Admiral Life Insurance Company are no longer involved in the Oxendine case, as the statute of Limitations has expired.  A spokesperson for the companies told the paper that the cases were separated by the Ethics Commission and they had their case adjudicated in Fulton County Superior Court.

A case against the lobbyist who took House Speaker David Ralston and his family on a $17,000 Thanksgiving trip to Europe to ride trains was settled Friday.  Chris Brady agreed to pay a $300 fine for not registering as a lobbyist prior to the expenditure and for not reporting the expenditures in a timely manner.

The five remaining ethics charges against Governor Nathan Deal remain pending.  The Commission’s former Executive Secretary and her former Deputy, the two highest ranking employees of the commission, each filed suit against the Commission and its former Chairman Patrick Millsaps last week, citing wrongful termination.  Secretary Stacey Kalberman’s salary was cut 30% and Secretary Sherry Streicker’s position were eliminated.  Kalberman claims she was told she had resigned when she protested the cuts.

This coincidentally happened when the two were seeking the signature of Millsaps on subpoenas to secure records from Governor Deal.  The two has also received offers of assistance from the FBI for outside investigative assistance in the matter.

The Commission, now with a new Chairman and Executive Secretary, had hoped to have the Governor’s cases ready to present last Friday.  Instead, they indicated that they will likely present the cases for discussion during the Commission’s July meeting.

17 comments

  1. Three Jack says:

    A $300 fine for taking the speaker on a $17,000 (reported amount) European vacation…yea, that’ll teach these lobbyists to follow the law. What a joke!

    • CobbGOPer says:

      ACTUALLY, the $300 was not technically a ‘fine.’ As Randy Evans – posting as Bob Loblaw (my personal opinion, not the opinion of Peach Pundit) – pointed out to me, the Commission simply made the ‘lobbyist’ actually register with the Commission as a lobbyist (he was not registered as such at the time of the trip in question, and according to his defense did not think he needed to be). The $300 is the fee to register.

      So there was no punishment, basically. Unless you consider having to register as a lobbyist to be a punishment. It might be.

      • Bridget says:

        My opinion, Cobb GOPer, is that we should leave the outing aliases out of it. Either the comment stands on its own merit or it doesn’t. I can only assume Randy Evans would know the textbook definition of libel.

        • CobbGOPer says:

          Meh, the Governor has enough communications portals to spread his propaganda without having to send guys like Loblaw and alot of these new posters we’ve seen lately (who all mysteriously seem to defend the guv and T-SPLOST) to Peach Pundit to harass us for disagreeing.

      • Three Jack says:

        CobbGOPer, If that is the case, then we might as well defund the panel posing as ethics watchdog and just let the scoundrels do their thing. Bad enough if it was only a $300 fine, totally useless if it is the registration fee.

        • CobbGOPer says:

          As I understand it, that was the gist of their ‘consent’ agreement: we consent not to pursue further measures against you if you consent that you should have registered as a lobbyist, and go ahead and register now.

          Totally useless. But it’s funny how they’re going ahead full steam and looking to try and throw the book at Oxendine. Since he’s a political outcast and has no more friends at the Gold Dome, it’s ok to go after him I guess.

  2. Bob Loblaw says:

    @Three Jack: the same Commission that sent Oxendine to the ALJ made the decision in the matter of this lobbyist. Clearly, the adjudication didn’t satisfy you. Just for argument’s sake, what would have? Keeping in mind that the complaint was that an unregistered lobbyist engaged in lobbying. The subject before the Commission was a matter of registration. I don’t really believe you wish to defund the Commission and believe this excited utterance was merely exasperation with the content of the consent order entered with the Commission in this specific case. The remedies available to the Commission were indeed much stronger than the registration fee. What penalty would you recommend for unregistered lobbying? Would you apply the same penalty for Common Cause’s William Perry? He was lobbying without registration for a stretch there. But, he said he wasn’t spending 10%+ on lobbying while working, speaking of stretches.

    • CobbGOPer says:

      Yeah, Bill Perry isn’t taking lawmakers on $17,000 junkets to European parliaments to ‘study’ how their anti-corruption laws work.

      • rrrrr says:

        Come on, IF you are spending 17K of private sector funds – YOU know…
        Geez…. do you know how many approval levels that takes?

    • Three Jack says:

      Yes I would absolutely defund that useless commission. It has proven time after time that it is nothing more than a political tool for the tools who appoint members.

      What would I suggest as punishment you ask? Well if you are caught without a drivers license (failure to register as a driver in Georgia) you are usually arrested and fined between $500 – $1000 for the first offense. In some cases, driving privileges are suspended. So I would apply the same standard to this lobbyist but with higher fines and at least a one year suspension from lobbying. That might get some attention which is needed.

  3. Bob Loblaw says:

    @CobbGOPer: are you suggesting that subject matter of what one lobbies for should be considered in deciding whether or not to follow the rules? Isn’t this “ethics”?

    @Three Jack: That would be a great improvement to lobbying laws if the Commission discovered that someone who lobbied and knew or should have know that they needed to be registered would lose that opportunity for a period of time like you describe. Folks should register if they’re going to lobby. I wouldn’t recommend a mandatory minimum–the Commission should be able to exercise judgment. Maybe someone will see this and (Buzz?) and toss that proposed rule into the mix.

    • rrrrr says:

      It’s a shame we hit Buzz with all the heavy lifting in the ethics department.

      But I must admit after reading his post on the 100 dollar cap vs. ZERO acceptance of gifts by lobbyists, I’ve wanted to see his BILL text that has been presented in the past or will be presented upon his reelection…

      But again it REALLY seems like we are overloading the last “good nerve” we have.

    • CobbGOPer says:

      It’s not the subject matter, genius, it’s the money. You don’t spend $17,000 out of the kindness of your heart. You spend it to forward an agenda – whether it be political or a business agenda.

      It doesn’t matter that there was no legislation pending on maglevs. What matters is that when legislation on maglevs does come up, I’m sure Speaker Ralston will be sympathetic. Because he’ll remember the nice man who paid for his awesome European vacation.

      And that’s the simple workaround to this aspect of our weak ethics system. So long as there’s no legislation pending, it’s not lobbying. Which means these guys spend all sorts of money on legislators when no legislation is pending, with the expectation that those legislators will be with them if/when a related bill hits the floor.

      This trip for Ralston was ‘priming the pump’ so to say, so that in a session or two when some maglev conglomerate (no doubt with ties to Ralston’s maglev lobby buddy) is proposing a line to run from the Georgia Dome to Decatur (and nowhere else), Mr. Ralston will be leading the charge to get them the money to do it.

      That’s how lobbying works in this state. It’s a long con.

      • saltycracker says:

        As long as you compose a political song with it.

        Got this visual of the Speaker with his feet on his desk puffin’ on a lobbyist gift Cuban, sipping a single malt, telling an aid to make sure the Brazilian hardwood lobbyist taking the family on an Amazon cruise this Thanksgiving is registered.

        Got to keep these big junkets legal.

        • Calypso says:

          I could probably make it work to the tune of “Give me that old time religion”

          ♫Gimme that ol’ time ethics ♪, gimme that ol’ time ethics ♪ , gimme that ol’ time ethics ♪ , transparent or invisibility?♪

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