Ethics A Bigger Issue Than Gift Caps

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Ethics, again, will be a much talked about topic around the legislature this session.  Unlike other sessions, however, the legislature may not just limit themselves to just talk.

Senators have started the ball rolling, adopting new Senate Rules that install a cap on lobbyist expenditures for any member of the body in excess of $100.  There are, however, enough loopholes in those rules to drive a nice junket through.  It is, as they say, a start but hardly the effort Georgians and this legislature needs.

While the gift cap has been the rallying cry of many who have been championing ethics reform, others have fairly consistently acknowledged its window dressing role in more fundamental problems that face our system of governance and the integrity required within it for it to work properly.  A serious ethics reform package must contain two things:  Independent oversight and personal accountability of the government official.

Georgia has long relied on a system of “transparency” to self-police ethics in government.  We currently operate under the assumption that if campaign contributions and lobbyist expenditures are disclosed, the public can see who is spending money on whom, conclude for what purpose and motive this has been done, and then take corrective action if needed.  This concept is fundamentally flawed and broken.

After more than two years of “transparency”, issues reported from now former Rules Chairman Don Balfour of Gwinnett’s disclosures and other public records has brought him censure from the Senate and removal of Chairmanship from the Senate’s most powerful committee.  Some will say this is an example that the system works.  Those people hope you’re not paying attention.

Balfour’s transgressions were reported by a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Walls on his website Atlanta Unfiltered, but were largely ignored by his peers and scoffed at by former Senate leadership.  Only a constant drumbeat of press, comparisons to a former state senator who served jail time for similar transgressions, and two ethics complaints filed with the Senate from private individuals forced the Senate to act.

It’s worth noting that under these new improved Senate rules, a private citizen is no longer allowed to file ethics complaints with the Senate.  As is often the case with ethics “reform”, the details involved in the package undercut the changes promised in the headlines of press releases.

Georgia cannot assure its citizens that is has ethical and open Government until the system of “self-policing” has given way to an independent body that can review complaints and administer punishment without fear of budgetary or employment retribution.  And independent grand jury process to review complaints would be a far superior check on our official’s activities than meaningless reports filed by lobbyists and campaign consultants.

Furthermore, any true reform must contain accountability for the actions of the elected official.  Currently, if an elected official accepts a gift from a lobbyist that is not reported, the only sanction and penalty goes to the lobbyist.  There is no incentive for the official to worry if the trip, meal, sporting event ticket or other honorarium they receive will ever see the sunlight that is supposed to make this system work.  Quite the contrary, many would prefer these events go unreported.

There will be attempts to continue to add reporting burdens to the lobbying community and expand the scope of the number of people who are required to register as lobbyists.  Georgians should also reject this cynical ploy to pretend that lobbyist act alone with respect to ethical transgressions.

Ask any of the lobbyists that play by the rules and try to work within this system and they will quickly confide that it is broken.  While many elected officials do not abuse the meals and other items afforded to them, most lobbyists have tales of inviting certain legislators to dinner, only to have that legislator invite several additional friends and relatives to join.  When all members of the party order a second meal to go, it’s clear that some do use and abuse this system.  Additional lobbyist reporting will not fix that problem.

The current system produces a lot of records but little accountability.  For Georgians to get the ethics reform they so desperately want and need, legislators will have to work long and hard to design a system that removes their role of self-policing, and institutes specific measures which allow themselves to be held accountable when transgressions are committed.  Only then will we have achieved true ethics reform.


  1. Gift cap is a silly distraction. It’s the cheapest populism designed to help a few ambitious little politicos (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) boost their profile and score easy points with voters. It’s worse than window dressing. It cynically plays on the need for clean government for the sake of self promotion.

  2. Dave Bearse says:

    “A serious ethics reform package must contain two things: Independent oversight and personal accountability of the government official.”

    Absolutely spot on.

    • Charlie says:

      It means that there is a clear, bright line process that can lead to punishment of those elected and appointed to serve when they run afoul of ethics laws.

      Go back to the Don Balfour example. It was clear in 2010 that not only ethical but legal boundaries had been crossed. It took two years and some creative filings of ethics filings from citizens (a path that was just closed by Senate rules) to get this to the level of embarassment for those who “self police” to even begin to contemplate how to deal with a problem that was obvious to all those who didn’t bury their head into the sand.

      The process has to be clear, because those who break the rules and laws currently have no fear that they are the ones who will be held accountable.

  3. Dave Bearse says:

    “A serious ethics reform package must contain two things: Independent oversight and personal accountability of the government official.” Charlie Harper, Courier Herald, Jan 17, 2013.

    The House legislation could be improved with respect to the first, and is entirely lacking concerning the second.

    PS – Thanks for taking a few moments to respond to a question in an earlier thread and identify the membership of the conference committee that thought hunting and fishing license housekeeping legislation was the appropriate for last minute amendment on the penultimate day of the session to block citizens from filing complaints.

    That House Ethics Committee Chairman Wilkinson served on that conference committee is all one needs to know that not watching the General Assembly closely is a recipe for subversion of ethics reform, as virtually anything may to added to any bill at any time.

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