A Question of Ethics

While on the campaign trail last year, Governor Nathan Deal declared some interest in changing the way the State Ethics Commission (formally known as The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission) works. In January, the governor decided to wait another year to see if some of the problems the Commission confronted over the last few years work themselves out. And, that may be fine. If nothing else, the delay provides an opportunity to give some thought to considering how we work towards having an ethical government, both under the Gold Dome, and in the various city halls and county courthouses in the Peach State.

Part of that thought process should involve determining what actually constitutes an ethics breach, whether it should be administrative or criminal, and who should respond to an alleged violation.

The state already has a system set up to record and document campaign donations and lobbyist activities. I’m certainly someone in the camp who believes in fewer restrictions on donations, as long as they are disclosed promptly. But if the idea is to document contributions and expenditures, then it seems to me that the staff of the Ethics Commission should be acting as auditors more than anything else. Many of the issues that can arise, such as failure to file a disclosure, or a donor exceeding the allowed contribution limit permitted during an election cycle are administrative snafus that can be caught by staff and rectified by the candidate or lobbyist.

Now consider a more serious charge: a government official accepting a bribe in order to influence his vote. I’ll put crimes like those committed by former Senator Charles Walker or Gwinnett Commissioner Shirley Lasseter in this category. These two cases were handled in federal court, although other similar charges could be handled by a district attorney. If a candidate or lawmaker violates the Georgia Code, it seems like the case should be handled by a D.A. or county Solicitor, depending on the nature of the crime.

What about where campaign finance and the law intersect? I’m thinking here of the case of contributions to John Oxendine’s gubernatorial campaign from insurance companies run by Delos Yancy. If it’s alleged that the companies’ contributions are illegal under Georgia law, should prosecutions be handled by the state Ethics Commission in Atlanta, or by the District Attorney in Floyd County?

While one can argue that the Ethics Commission might have more experience with interpretation of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Act / the Ethics in Government Act, the commission is also more likely to be subject to political pressure in how it applies the law than a district attorney would be. That could include scheduling a hearing three weeks before a primary, just as voters are paying attention. And, if part of the Commission’s job is to issue advisory opinions on potential violation scenarios, and to educate candidates in how to interpret the Act, should it also act as judge and jury if cases come before it?

There’s one other type of ethics case we hear about. It’s the type of case that appears fishy, but there’s no legal prohibition against it. Such is the situation with the ethics case filed by Common Cause against Rep. Mike Glanton, who is accused of using is position as a lawmaker to influence Atlanta Public Schools to purchase of educational materials from his employer. Or, January’s AJC investigation of Governor Deal’s fundraiser, who happened to be his daughter in law, and who was paid a commission of 10% of what she raised.

Illegal? Apparently not. Improper? Maybe. Similar cases in local government have been reported in the AJC, documenting how elected officials in new cities are making decisions that are potentially ethically dubious. Should we be tightening up the law or issuing advisory opinions on the legality of these situations or, in cases like this, should we trust voters to decide if an elected official has gone too far?

I’m neither a lawyer nor a campaign finance expert, but it seems to me that deciding who should be responsible for investigating and prosecuting different types of possible campaign violations is a conversation we should have before trying to decide the makeup of the ethics commission itself.

7 comments

  1. gcp says:

    State-wide grand juries has been talked about for years, most recently by McKoon in 2013. Such a system would allow indictment and trial outside of the accused politician/citizen home county. But it would also require an ethical, nonpartisan attorney general.

    • Charlie says:

      That used to be a solution I supported. Critics told me that it just shifted the potential for abuse to district attorneys. I didn’t buy it. Then a Travis County TX DA indicted a sitting Governor for exercising a veto.

      …back to the drawing board.

      • gcp says:

        Not quite the same as Perry. Under a state-wide grand jury his case would have not have been heard in Travis County (Austin) but somewhere else. But yes, it could still have the same result.

  2. saltycracker says:

    We can’t even get over two low hurdles for qualification to vote on spending taxpayer monies;
    1. All outstanding obligations/taxes to the public must be paid in full,
    2. Any outstanding court matters that may conflict with spending the people’s money must be settled (in the opinion of a panel to weed out the frivolous).

  3. jpm says:

    So is there a State model that actually works, or does Georgia need to invent the wheel?

    Defining ethics laws seems to be a natural fit for the concept of States being a laboratory in making a Republic work.

    • There are many issues with the grand jury system, whether statewide or not, but a lot of states have statewide grand juries that work fine.

      Right now, Fulton’s DA could do much of what Texas has if he or she decided to use the office’s power to investigate statewide officials and/or the legislature (as they conduct most of their business in Atlanta in Fulton County). But Fulton’s DA is not very active, and can barely clear many of the regular criminal indictments that happen there.

      The AG’s office often investigates crimes in a manner similar to what would exist if there were a statewide grand jury system, but has to hand off the investigations either to a local prosecutor (if state law violation) or federal one (if federal).

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