Ethics Reform On The Table; Must Be Watched

January 29, 2013 10:00 am

by Charlie · 12 comments

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

This week, the Legislature is finally expected to return its focus to ethics legislation.  It is important that the Georgia voting electorate that angrily demanded ethics reform at the polls this past summer focus on this as well.

The last time Georgia passed major ethics reform legislation was in 2010, shortly after scandal had consumed the top tier of leadership in the Georgia House and rumor began to consume the rest of the legislature, painting all with a broad brush of complicit guilt.  The legislation that passed looked tough on the surface.  In reality, it added bureaucracy to an already ineffective system, allowing it to collapse under its own weight via lack of funding, staffing, and authority to actually police much of what was broken.

The 2010 Legislation was championed by a study that ranked Georgia as one of the best states for ethics laws in the country.  It was a clear example in preparing for a test instead of preparing for practical application however.  The study only looked at laws that were in place, and not how or if they could be enforced.  When a related group dug deeper, Georgia was revealed to be the worst state in the nation.

The. Worst.

Jim Walls, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor that now publishes the website Atlanta Unfiltered (and was the Georgia reporter who assisted in the report which ranked Georgia 50th) is now reporting that House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, in the days leading up to the House’s release of its ethics reform proposal, is telling interested parties that he has a report that ranks Georgia 3rd, not 50th.  It’s just that, well, it appears to be a super-secret proposal that he can’t show to anyone.  Seriously.

No, seriously.

Georgians should not be concerned if they’re starting to sense a feeling of déjà vu.  If the starting position of the House ethics chairman is that Georgia is 3rd best in the nation with the morass of public corruption we incubate here, then there’s little reason to believe that the process we are about to undertake is little more than a publicity stunt.  Georgians must pay attention to this legislation throughout the process to ensure that accountability and enforceability are part of the final product.

Why must Georgians pay attention?  Because of events like those that happened last year.  During the 2012 session, leaders of the House and Senate insisted there was no ethics problem, despite growing and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Columbus Senator Josh McKoon was not only rebuffed on every attempt to introduce reform legislation, but spent most of the year as a pariah in exile.

In the literal last hours of the session however, after killing every attempt to make Georgia’s ethics laws stronger, a House-Senate Conference Committee inserted provisions into a bill about fishing licensing procedures that would have shielded many complaints against legislators from public view and permanently sealed the records.  That 6 person conference committee included former Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour, who personally killed many of McKoon’s efforts at reform in his committee only to agree to later accept a censure for his own transgressions, and House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson.

The language from leadership has been significantly different this session than last year’s complete abdication and public embarrassment.  Senator McKoon, no longer in exile, was actually given a prominent committee chairmanship in that of Senate Judiciary.  Speaker Ralston, who chided GOP delegates at the state convention for siding with “media elites and liberal special interest groups”, is now talking about a total gift ban from lobbyists, which is expected in a package to be released Tuesday.  Clearly, the tone is better.

Tone, however, is not law.  And thus, this process must be closely watched to see what is talked about during this 40 days is enforceable for the next weeks and years to come.  We’re going to watch this effort closely, and we will praise what is found to be good, but we will also note what is missing.

At the end of the day, the goals of this reform must remain clear.  There must be independent accountability outside the influence of the legislature and executive branches, and there must be clear and easily accessible enforcement mechanisms.  These two principles are much more important than any secret score the legislators want to use to tell us how honest our broken system is.

Three Jack January 29, 2013 at 11:12 am

Require all legislators to where a GoPro camera with real-time feed to a publicly viewable website during session and while attending lobbyist paid for events. Problem solved.

benevolus January 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm

And if they don’t, they will get a strongly worded letter!

Three Jack January 29, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Exactly.

Mike Hassinger January 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm

“…a pariah in exile.” Great phrase. No longer in exile, but still a pariah?

Will Durant January 29, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Gift cap ≠ Ethics reform.

Dave Bearse January 29, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Care to provides the names of the other five on that conference committee?

Dave Bearse January 31, 2013 at 1:19 am

Wow. I didn’t read the column closely enough. Wilkerson, the Ethics Committee Chairman was on that conference committee?

Ethics refrom must be watched? Ethics legislation belongs under a microscope when the House Ethics Chairman behaves unethically with respect to Ethics legislation! (BS General Assembly ethical standards aside, being a party (if not the leader) in attempting to hoodwink both colleagues and the people that are supposed to be served is unethical behavior.)

Who were the other four?

Dave Bearse February 20, 2013 at 9:33 pm

I thought I’d check here in hopes of an answer. I’ve since learned from Atlanta Unfiltered that Tom McCall was on the Conference Committee; 3 down, 3 to go.

Charlie February 21, 2013 at 9:38 am

http://www.peachpundit.com/2012/03/29/fishing-to-weaken-georgias-last-place-ethics-laws/

In the Senate: Bulloch of the 11th; Balfour of the 9th; and Mullis of the 53rd
In the House: Knight of the 126th, McCall of the 30th, and Wilkinson of the 52nd.

The Last Democrat in Georgia January 29, 2013 at 10:35 pm

“Jim Walls, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor that now publishes the website Atlanta Unfiltered (and was the Georgia reporter who assisted in the report which ranked Georgia 50th) is now reporting that House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, in the days leading up to the House’s release of its ethics reform proposal, is telling interested parties that he has a report that ranks Georgia 3rd, not 50th. It’s just that, well, it appears to be a super-secret proposal that he can’t show to anyone.”

Well, isn’t that a coincidence? I’ve got my own DOUBLE super-secret report that shows Georgia being SECOND in the nation in ethics.

I’ve also got another report (issued by a double super-secret source that asked to remain twice-as-totally anonymous), a TRIPLE super-secret report that shows Georgia being FIRST in the nation in ethics (…And no, I don’t mean first from the bottom).

It’s just that I can’t show anyone the reports because they are double and triple super-secret and the sources of the report are twice-as-anonymous so you’ll just have to take my word that Georgia leads the nation in ethics.

debbie0040 January 30, 2013 at 9:20 am

Media Advisory

January 29, 2013

Contact:

Common Cause Georgia, William Perry, [email protected] – 678-358-6966

Georgia Conservatives in Action, Kay Godwin, [email protected] – 912-282-2524

Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Julianne Thompson, [email protected] – 404-798-4663 or Debbie Dooley, [email protected] – 404-625-4986

Georgia Watch, Elena Parent, [email protected] – 404-525-1085

League of Women Voters of Georgia, Kelli Persons, [email protected] – 404-522-4598

House Speaker Shows Cards on Ethics: It’s a Bluff!

Ethics Alliance reacts to “ethics bills” introduced by House leadership

Atlanta, Georgia, January 29, 2013 – House Speaker David Ralston introduced two ethics bills today that will do very little to improve Georgia’s worst in the nation ranking on ethics laws, and in fact, will make things worse. One of the bills even has provisions that would

require every citizen in the State of Georgia to register as a lobbyist if they advocate for the passage or defeat of a bill at the state or local level to anyone other than their elected government representatives.

“The Speaker and House Leadership showed us their cards today and it turns out all this talk about a ‘complete gift ban’ and other ethics reform was a total bluff,” said William Perry, Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia, one of the organizers of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform.

The Speaker’s well-spun talking points on the bills can be viewed here, and one bill about gifts and lobbyist registration here and one about local candidates filing campaign reports here.

While the Alliance has not had the time to thoroughly examine the bills, here are some big problems that immediately jump out:

- The “complete ban on lobbyist” gifts has some pretty big loopholes, including many of the same exceptions the Speaker criticized in the Senate’s $100 Cap Rule. The ban is not enforced on subcommittees, which can be a committee of one, nor does it apply to trips involving undefined “official duties” of any public officers (which is basically defined as any elected official, from Governor to local school boards).

- The definition of a lobbyist is so broad that it includes anyone “advocating a position or agenda for the purpose of influencing the decision making of any public officer”. If any citizen sends an email to a group of friends asking them to contact their Senator about a bill, they would need pay $320 to register as a lobbyist and file reports with the ethics commission during the session every two weeks.

- County and municipal candidates would no longer be required to send their reports to the ethics commission, but would return to filing locally. This would be a good change, however, there is no requirement to make those reports available online, so Georgia’s highly touted transparency laws would take a huge step backward.

It should also be noted that the announcement of the House bill that is suppose to improve ethics and transparency in the state was held before the media in the House anteroom where the public is not allowed.

Here is reaction from ethics advocate Senator Josh McKoon, as well as other members of the Alliance:

Senator Josh McKoon said, “This bill imposes a First Amendment Tax on our fundamental freedom of speech and to petition our government. It should not cost a citizen $320 to advocate for the public interest. To do so is to close the doors of open government in Georgia.”

League of Women Voters of Georgia President Elizabeth Poythress said, “If the intent of this legislation is to expand the definition of a lobbyist to incorporate any private citizen wishing to express his or her point of view, then it is an unconscionable imposition on the right of free speech and adverse to our foundation of democracy.”

Atlanta Tea Party Chairman Julianne Thompson stated, “It was one week ago at the State of the State, that Governor Deal thoughtfully tasked the legislature with passing ethics reform to build public trust, not shut the doors to the public. With this provision to impose a $300 fee on volunteer activists who wish to petition their government on issues dear to their heart, this legislation is a slap in the face to citizens and amounts to a First Amendment tax.”

Georgia Tea Party Patriots State Coordinator Debbie Dooley added, “This provision has outraged activists on the right and on the left. This would even prevent pastors of Churches from going to the Gold Dome and exercising their First Amendment rights to speak for their Congregation to the legislature on behalf of life and other moral issues. This would even prevent teachers from talking to legislators on education issues before the body if they cannot afford to pay a fee to speak to those who govern us.”

GA Conservatives in Action Founder Kay Godwin stated, “I have been coming to the Capitol for 24 years on my own dime. I sleep on blow-up mattresses, eat off a card table, and share meals so I can afford to be here as an unpaid activist that cares about good government. I have also volunteered on the campaigns of countless public officials, and this legislation and those who brought it break my heart. They have forgotten that they work for us and since when does the employee charge a fee to the employer to speak to each other.”

The Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform includes Common Cause Georgia, Georgia Conservatives in Action, Georgia Tea Party Patriots, the League of Women Voters of Georgia and Georgia Watch.

Romegaguy January 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Debbie you will be as successful in stopping this as you were in getting Ralph Reed elected and someone not named Jeff Mullis as Rules Chairman

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