Tit For Tat Over Disclosure Violators Misses The Larger Issue

A press release Tuesday afternoon by House Ethics Committee Chair Joe Wilkinson has caused a ruckus. Wilkinson said:

It is disappointing, ironic and hypocritical that 49 candidates for the Georgia House of Representatives who signed a petition to impose a $100 lobbyist gift cap on lawmakers are themselves in violation of ethics and campaign finance laws. These candidates have failed to file, or filed late, their required Declaration of Intent (due when they first qualified to run), their Personal Financial Disclosure (due 15 days after qualifying to run), and their Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report (which was due July 9),” says state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R- Sandy Springs. “All either have already been fined or expect to be fined shortly as required by Georgia law.”

The next morning Common Cause tweeted a link to a blog post featuring a response from Sen. Josh McKoon:

“When you are losing an argument, that’s when you resort to those kinds of ad hominem attacks,” he told a gathering of local politicians and press gathered in LaGrange, Georgia, Wednesday.

McKoon added:

“the attacks that have been made are not really accurate.” He added that many of those filing who are labeled as “late,” reflect the system at the Government Transparency and Campaign Commission crashing, and the office’s staff being overwhelmed on July 9, the last day of filing the proper documents.

The AJC Thursday afternoon agreed with McKoon:

But, according to the AJC’s analysis of Wilkinson’s list, several should not be included. Mistakes by the state ethics commission or by Wilkinson himself led to several people being included who should not have been — and many of them are just days away from competitive elections in Tuesday’s primary.

After the AJC pointed out the problems to Wilkinson, he issued a second release Thursday addressing only some of the candidates and said their “situations underscore a cautionary tale for all elected officials and candidates to follow.” He said it’s important for them to be sure their information has been posted accurately on the ethics commission’s website.

The AJC article alleges a dozen discrepancies but only mentions three and one of those still had a violation. Wilkinson addressed the errors in a second release here.

There were 49 House incumbents and candidates in Wilkinson’s initial release (out of a total of 86 House pledge signers). There are Senate candidates and incumbents in the same boat. If pointing this out is a distraction from the effort to enact a gift cap, then pointing out the small number of inaccuracies in fines assessed by the Campaign Finance Commission is a distraction as well.

I’m disappointed proponents of a gift cap did not embrace Wilkinson’s press release and call on all incumbents and candidates to make every effort to comply with existing disclosure requirements. Yes those that were inaccurately placed on the list should be pointed out, but there still remain plenty of people who are not following the law.

Some of these violations are technical in nature. There’s a difference between someone who files their campaign disclosure report minutes after the deadline and someone who campaigns for months without filing any of the required reports. The Campaign Finance Commission should be given the authority to deal with those situations appropriately. I support restoring the rule making authority the Campaign Finance Commission once had. See CFC Chairman Kevin Abernathy’s 7/13 editorial for more on this subject. There are other enforcement related things we can and should do to improve our system.

For example there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid disclosure fines. There’s no incentive for the Campaign Finance Commission to collect these fines because they only receive $25 of the fines they impose despite bearing the full cost of collection. There’s no incentive for candidates to pay these fines because nobody seems to care. Why pass new laws if we don’t care who follows the ones we already have?

As I commented Tuesday, I realize I’m part of a small number of people who are of the opinion the proposed gift cap will not be effective. Since then I’ve learned I’m also in a small group of people who value consistency in politics. We ought to expect candidates and Elected Officials to follow the rules and if they mess up they ought to make it right immediately.

I seem to often end up in the minority. When I lived in Texas I cheered for the Aggies not the Longhorns. When I lived in Southern California I was a Bruins fan not a Trojans fan, and here in Georgia…well you know where my loyalties lie.

30 comments

  1. JRM2016 says:

    I’m disappointed that after two years we have been unable to have a single committee hearing on ethics reform legislation (not just the gift limit) and that the only discussion coming from opponents of ethics reform is to malign the reputation of people who are willing to run for office instead of discussing this issue on its merits. I certainly hope we can expect a higher caliber of debate when we return to Atlanta in January.

    Josh McKoon

    • Bob Loblaw says:

      It is 2012. In 2010, the G.A. enacted and the Governor signed an Ethics bill that was 40+ pages in length and strengthened every area of campaign finance, lobbyist disclosures and personal financial disclosures. Fines went up–way up. Disclosures occur three times as often. Rights of actions to hold public officers accountable for conflicts of interest, sexual harrassment and abuse of power were created.

      There has been a lot more than a hearing on these issues. It was two years ago. If I’m not mistaken, Senator, your predecessor was the Senate sponsor of the bill.

      Joe Wilkinson is an honorable man and for you to say that he is in any way part of an effort to “malign the reputation of people willing to run for office” is an insult. I know you’ll respond by saying that you are not singling out the Representative since you didn’t name him, but we know what you mean by “malign…people running for office”.

      Enjoy your ride with your liberal buddies from the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. Still waiting to hear from you how much the tax increase will be when you start pushing their agendas.

      • Charlie says:

        Bob Loblaw is clearly representing one side on this argument, but he leaves out that the burden of the Ethics Commission was increased while their funding was cut. And that when they still tried to do their job as required, the Executive Secretary and Chief Deputy were removed and the budget cut more.

        Laws that aren’t enforceable aren’t laws.

        As for Rep Wilkinson, he was part of the last minute attempt to bury a change to ethics laws that would allow for these technical violations he’s complaining of to be permanently sealed from public view. So why is he now so interested in everyone knowing about them?

        • Bob Loblaw says:

          Can’t win for losing, here. You can’t expand the jurisdiction of the Commission and cut its budget in the same bill. Like the Governor said when asked ’bout the cap, “nobody gives them credit” for the bills they pass. Expanding the jurisdiction to cover local governments, especially given the recent local government corruption in Gwinnett, is a huge first step.

          Joe Wilkinson carried the House bill in 2005 that embodied the first real Ethics reform in decades. Whether or not a technical violation should remain on public record (that will be twisted in a campaign to look like the candidate has “ethics” problems when the truth is they filled out a form wrong) is a singular matter. Address it in its proper context. Joe Wilkinson was a leader when the Revenue Department found Members of the G.A. with back taxes. He has led by example, as well. Folks ought to give Wilkinson deference because of his years of success in passing Ethics bills, not pick him apart for calling a spade a spade.

          Bob Loblaw doesn’t represent a “side”. Unfortunately, a view of being on a “side” in a debate about “ethics” has become pervasive. Ethics is so much bigger than can fit on a “side” of a political debate.

          • Charlie says:

            I could appreciate what Wilkinson did in 2005 if I hadn’t been present in 2012 when he, Don Balfour, and 4 others tried to sneak an attempt to weaken Georgia’s already “F” grade ethics laws through under the cover of a fishing license bill. Neither of the conferees that reported to the House or Senate reported that the ethics change had been buried in the bill. Wilkinson was fuming after it was uncovered and killed in the house.

            He’s not one to be preaching about sunlight after that episode.

            • Bob Loblaw says:

              That “F” is horse manure and you know it. The subject matters covered were way overbroad when contemplating what areas of law fall under “ethics”. 29 States got an “F”.

              Technical violations should be addressed in any omnibus ethics reform. Having a technical violation sit on a candidate’s “record” isn’t helpful to the electorate after a certain time passes. It becomes a weapon, confuses the voters and is disengenious.

              I’d also advise looking at a person’s entire body of work in evaluating their credibility to speak on a matter. The G.A. has passed what, 3, maybe 4 bills since the GOP took over? That bill you mention failed. Let’s start anew! This is no time for doubletalk!

              • Charlie says:

                The bill I mentioned failed only because two folks from the AJC, myself, and two others from Peach Pundit spent 10 mintues grabbing every house member we could find and sending them into the chamber to change votes. Otherwise, it would be yet another example, much like the 2010 whitewash, where we trumpet our strong ethics but continue to undermine enforcement. THAT is why we have an F, and are 50th out of 50 regardless how many others have that grade.

                Those who have been preening about our strong ethics laws didn’t like it that the grades were changed to include not only the requirements, but the enforcement ability to make elected officials adhere to the law. That ability doesn’t exist here, and Wilkinson has been part of the problem.

                • Bob Loblaw says:

                  If tripling penalites, tripiling disclosure requirements, new laws to define abuse of official power, sexual harrassment and conflicts of interests and so much more is a “whitewash” then its no point trying to debate whatever “ethics” might mean. “Ethics” in GA law has always centered around campaigns, PACs, candidates, lobbyists and state employees.

                  Tossing in a bunch of new issues into the mix like open records, budgetary processes, authority of oversight, etc. and then giving a State a grade is akin to telling Bob Loblaw what subjects will be covered on the Bar Exam and then adding 200% more material available for the test writers.

    • DeKalb Wonkette says:

      I am disappointed that any discussion on Ethics seems to devolve to ONLY lobbyist gifts.

      We all know that the PACs and their donors carry a much bigger wallop of influence than any single lobbyist could muster but nobody wants to “go there.”

      As a lobbyist for a nonprofit I have to report each and every expenditure made on behalf or a lawmaker even if that lawmaker simply serves on a board of directors or some other volunteer capacity. And unlike the Citizens for Transportation Mobility PAC, I don’t get a week’s “grace period” in reporting. I get a hefty fine.

      Fixating on “lobbyist expenditures” is clearly a side show intended to distract the public.

  2. John Konop says:

    I think the $100 ban is more feel good window dressing than any real reform. The biggest issue is elected officials parlaying their influence in trade for manipulating policies that lines their pockets with money ie given stocks into banks they regulate, insider land deals, land service contracts………..

    We should focus on tighten up the ability for office holders to profit off their position ie no government land bought or sold within 5% of appraised value, cannot vote on legislation they have stock ownership in, cannot receive free or discounted stocks while in office, cannot vote on legislation they perform work, contracts………. I am not sure of the exact language (not a lawyer) but that should be what the spirit of the legislation should focuses on.

  3. Stefan says:

    Demonizing lobbyists is good politics but makes for bad policy. There is enough bad information and uncorrected rumor running amok in legislatures as it is, limiting lobbyist access often means legislators only hear the original side of the story and not its counterpoint.

  4. JRM2016 says:

    Stefan,

    No one is talking about limiting lobbyist access, just limiting them to spending $100 per day.

    Bob,

    You really think Democrats are the only people who want the “anything goes” policy on gifts to end? I guess we will get that question answered Tuesday.

    John,

    I agree we need to do more than the gift limit–but ending a system where literally anything goes with respect to gifts is not “window dressing”. It’s an important check missing from our system that 47 other states have figured out.

    On to Augusta!

    • Calypso says:

      Josh, several serious questions, in your mind, where is the line drawn between an unlimited gift and a bribe?

      What constitutes a gift and what consitutues a bribe, providing both are reported according the current laws? Is there such a thing as a bribe if it is disclosed on the appropriate forms?

    • Stefan says:

      We don’t disagree on this specific legislation – I was attempting to make a broader point about the importance of lobbying.

    • Bob Loblaw says:

      That question answered on Tuesday? You mean that non-binding question that most folks won’t get to on the ballot? The answer won’t come Tuesday. That’s for sure.

    • Bob Loblaw says:

      Are you now campaigning toward Georgia Democrat Party voters, Senator? You have rubbed shoulders for too long with your bus buddies. Seth Harp was a conservative who sponsored a tough ethics bill. Not sure who’s shoes you’re trying to fill.

  5. greencracker says:

    Hm, Buzz said “I realize I’m part of a small number of people who are of the opinion the proposed gift cap will not be effective.”

    A Democrat told me the same thing …

    Get on that Rhino bus with Charlie, man.

  6. Bull Moose says:

    Bob Loblaw is nothing but a pawn of the House special interests… His opinion should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Ethics reform and reform in general should be the mantra of every good government minded person in this state.

    What’s unfortunate is that we have too many people serving in government that have their hand in the cookie jar and while they aren’t stealing huge sums of money, they are doing it enough to enrich their selves and their friends and it’s high time that it comes to an end.

    The gift ban is just one step of heading in the right direction.

    • Bob Loblaw says:

      Bull Moose hasn’t walked into the Capitol in years. Well, except on days maybe where Savannah serves free food after work.

      “good government minded person(s)” show up, Bull.

  7. Joseph says:

    I think the key point is that you cannot significantly increase the responsibility of the Ethics Commission while simultaneously dramatically cutting its funding.

    I’d like to think my esteemed Senator would agree the gift cap is just one piece of a bigger pie.

    However, the Speaker and the House Leadership continue to give this topic a platform by continuing with numerous PR miscues.

    Fund the Ethics Commission, fix the website, close the loopholes (whatever that means that will stop the abuse and limit the appearance of impropriety for our Elected Officials).

  8. debbie0040 says:

    Joe Wilkinson has served too long…

    Bob, what about Gov. Deal’s liberal buddies? You are being very hypocritical by criticizing others for working with liberal groups on issues they agree on, but you don’t have an issue with Gov. Deal working with Mayor Reed on than issue they agree on – largest tax increase in Georgia’s history. Can’t you at least try to be consistent? Are you afraid we no longer let people like you manipulate us ? We will find out Tuesday how successful the coalition formed to fight T-SPLOST was

    Republicans have got away for years with saying the liberal media is out to get conservatives when they call Republicans on bad behavior and to just ignore the liberal media. Activists would just blindly accept their explanation. Times have changed and conservatives have begun to call out Republican elected officials for unethical behavior.

    I am amused that House Leadership is desparate to stop caps on lobbyists gifts. If you look at the lobbyist gifts they have received the past four years, you can see why.

    House Leadership is spreading outright lies about the origin of caps on lobbyist gifts in order to diminish the call on caps T-SPLOST to set the record straight. Leadership is telling activists that caps on lobbyist gifts is part of the liberal agenda and pushed by liberal groups.

    In October of 2010, tea party activists met in McDonough on a Saturday to come up with a tea party platform for state legislators. Part of that was caps on lobbyist gifts and other tough ethics reform. Julianne sent out a press release about the platform and a news story was done on it in the AJC. Common Cause then contacted Julianne and said they supported the ethic s portion of our platform and wanted to see if we wanted to work with them on pushing ethics reform.

    After Tuesday, we will be sending out an email correcting whose idea caps on gifts actually was.

    I am amazed that Republican legislators infer caps on lobbyist gifts is something only liberals want. That should be something Republicans want.

    • Bob Loblaw says:

      Ok, so people of different feathers work together. Does that explain your bed buddies in Common Cause, that will increase your taxes to fund campaigns, or the League of Women Voters? Or Georgia Watch? They want unlimited damages in plantiffs lawsuits. Where does the bedfellow turn into a bed buddy? Atrocious!

  9. debbie0040 says:

    Lobbyists can give legislators a new car, house or an European vacation with his family at Thanksgiving and it is legal as long as it disclosed.

    Is it legal for lobbyists to give legislators cash?

  10. Dave Bearse says:

    Voters will support limiting gifts by 2 to 1, but teh margin is meaningless. Wilkinson is in one of the upwards of 90% safe seats. Wilkinson, like two-thirds of those serving, has opposition.

    Office holders often serve themselves even if a large majority of constituents don’t agree—local control of Sunday liquor sales very likely had majority support in the last century—it’s got to really be bad to get the electrorate’s attention. Even then an opposition candidate is often iffy. Case in point: Balfour.

    As long as unlimited gifts are allowed, gifts won’t be a campaing issue. A $17,000 European family vacation proved that. Put a $100 gift ban in place and it becomes a campaign issue if an incumbent received an excessively valuable gift. It’s anathema beyond the pocketbook. Pols might actually have to campaign for office because it occurred.

  11. Dave Bearse says:

    “If pointing this out is a distraction from the effort to enact a gift cap, then pointing out the small number of inaccuracies in fines assessed by the Campaign Finance Commission is a distraction as well.”

    It’s the same tired GOP argument that everything is simply two sides of the same coin when it’s not. Wilkinson is a long time incumbent and Chairman of the House Ethics Committee. He should be held to high standard in declaring opposition unethical, especially when basing his claims on information provided by the agency he underfunds.

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