From Ethics Reform

Ethics Board Investigates Former Fulton County Commissioner

After an investigative report by the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealed that former Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards couldn’t account for $80,000 allegedly missing from his campaign account in 2010, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission announced it will conduct its own inquiry into the matter. A story by David Wickert and AJC Intern Ciara Bri’d Frisbie in this morning’s paper says the Ethics Commission found several possible violations of campaign law, including improper accounting and improper expenditures. For his part, Edwards claims innocence, saying he had hired an auditor to determine errors, and can explain the discrepancies to the commission.

A student journalist at The Georgia News Lab noticed Edwards’ campaign finances didn’t add up while reviewing public records for a class in investigative reporting. Public agencies responsible for policing political campaigns apparently never noticed the discrepancy.

The campaign reports showed Edwards had nearly $196,000 in cash on hand in June 2010. In September he reported having only about $117,000 on hand — nearly $80,000 less. But he reported spending only about $1,500 between June and September, and the missing money is not accounted for in subsequent reports.

While the story details issues with the longtime commissioner’s campaign finances–he left office last December after serving for 14 years–it also illustrates how discrepancies in disclosure reports can easily escape scrutiny by the Ethics Commission. That, according to Ethics Commission Executive Director Stefan Ritter, is something the Commission is working to address:

Other Georgia politicians may ultimately find themselves subject to similar scrutiny. Ritter said the commission may develop a computerized audit system that will automatically search campaign reports for such accounting discrepancies.

One critic of the agency likes the idea of automatic checks. The system would catch discrepancies and save staff time and taxpayer money, said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. He thinks there are plenty of other politicians who could be investigated.

“I imagine a thorough audit of all reports would uncover a lot of missing information and discrepancies from campaigns and public officials,” Perry said.

Edwards has 30 days to respond to the Commission’s inquiries. Based on his response, the case could be dropped or sent to a formal hearing.

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. Read more

Ban the Bag Ban Ban

We are heading into Day 24 of the 2015 legislative session, and this time of year, a girl’s thoughts often turn to legislation that could potentially impact the way she does her job as a local elected official.

This year, I have my eye on several bills. I’ve written before on the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly the State Ethics Commission) and how it was a bit of a hot mess during several transitional years. Others agree, and the House and Senate are each considering bills that would provide waivers for fines that were accrued – frequently in error on the part of the GGTCFC(FKASCE) – during this special time in GGTCFC(FKASCE) history.

House Bill 442 addresses conflicts of interests for county and municipal governing authorities. I thought this was already a thing, but I’m all for anything that further clarifies to my colleagues throughout the state that if you have a substantial interest – and by “interest,” I mean money – in something before your elected body, recuse thyself! I’ve always felt like conflict of interest recusals is not something an elected official – at any level – should need to be told to do, but as I am often wrong (yet rarely in doubt), it can’t hurt to spell it out as clearly as possible, in ways that are as subtle as an anvil to the head. Read more

Consider the GGTCFC(FKASEC)

Are you looking for a career with an organization that will immerse you in controversy, 20th century technological innovation, and the constant scrutiny of the AJC? Do you possess a solid work ethic, a positive attitude, and a valid Georgia driver’s license?

Then this is the job for you.

If you read the Daily this Tuesday, you’re aware that the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly the State Ethics Commission) is looking for a new executive director, its fourth in three years. For simplicity’s sake – because if anything’s simple in this state, it’s ethics – I’ll refer to it as the GGTCFC(FKASEC).

Before you fire up WordPerfect to dust off that resume, take a moment to consider two of the primary functions of the GGTCFC(FKASEC): filings and disclosure, and enforcement and compliance with the Campaign Finance Act. To wit: Read more

Judge Fines Attorney General and State Ethics Director

In a “plague on both your houses” ruling, Fulton County Superior Judge Ural Glanville fined the office of Attorney General Sam Olens and ethics chair Holly LaBerge $10,000 each for failing to provide evidence to former ethics director Stacey Kalberman for her recent lawsuit against the state.

The AJC story reports that LaBerge, who made political waves when she revealed that Governor Deal’s aides contacted her for her support days before the commission issued its 2010 ruling against the Deal campaign, was obligated to turn the same information over to Kalberman’s attorneys. The Attorney General’s office argued that they did nothing improper and that they were not informed that LaBerge kept the text messages in question.

LaBerge retorted that the text messages were mentioned in a 2012 memo the Attorney General’s office received in 2013. She has claimed in past months that she was threatened by the Governor’s Chief of Staff Chris Riley before a 2012 ruling that largely exonerated the governor. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, your Honor.

Can anyone escape Georgia’s omnipresent ethics nightmare?

Jason Carter Wants Indy Investigator Into Deal Ethics Complaints

Jason Carter is calling for an independent investigator to review the handling of ethics complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal that were at the center of three lawsuits filed against the state ethics commission.

Carter made the request in a letter Wednesday to Attorney General Sam Olens.

The complaints date back to the 2010 campaign, and Deal was cleared of any major violations by the commission.

Since then four former commission employees have claimed retaliation for work investigating the Deal complaints, and a jury sided with one of them in April. The state has decided to settle with the other three.

Deal’s spokeswoman Jen Talaber says there is no connection to the governor’s office and Carter is “playing politics” with the letter.

Georgia Will Settle Remaining Ethics Commission Lawsuits

State leaders will announce on Friday they have settled two remaining lawsuits against its ethics commission as well as one that had yet to be filed.

The AJC is reporting that a source told the paper the state will pay more than $1.8 million to settle lawsuits filed by former commission deputy director Sherilyn Streicker and former computer specialist John Hair.

Former commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein has also threatened a lawsuit.

The paper reports that Streicker will receive $1 million, while Hair will be paid $410,000. Murray-Obertein settled for $477,500.

Last month, the state agreed to pay former commission director Stacey Kalberman $1.3 million after a Fulton County jury agreed with her claim that she was forced from office for investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign.

State Ethics Commission Hires Attorney

As Georgia’s five member state ethics commission faces federal scrutiny, the board on Thursday decided to hire an attorney to help it carry out its daily functions.

According to the AJC, the commission has hired Robert Constantine, a former administrative law judge with the worker’s compensation board.

As Peach Pundit reported Wednesday morning, the commission called a hastily-arranged meeting for Thursday where they discussed retaining a receiver.

This is the first time that an outsider has taken control of all — or even parts — of the agency’s operations.

Commission chair Kevin Abernethy was quoted in the AJC as saying Constantine would be paid $4,000 a month between January and May, to help ready the commission for the 2014 campaign season.

Three Days Left

The Senate yesterday passed their revised version of House Bill 142 a proposed reform of lobbyist expenditure laws.

Here’s a description of the Senate version from yesterday’s Peach Pundit Daily (which if you aren’t subscribed to why not?)

On The Senate Floor Today: The Senate will take up their revised version of House Speaker Ralston’s ethics reform bills. The Senate version bans lobbyist expenditures except when overridden by “authorized rule, executive order, regulation, ordinance, or resolution which governs acceptance of expenditures by such public officer and his or her staff” and then such expenditures cannot exceed $100. Consequently the House and Senate, every City Council, County Commission, and School Board must either accept the complete ban on lobbyist expenditures or adopt their own rules allowing them. The Senate already has rules in place allowing lobbyist expenditures. Oh, and Citizen Activists can remain Citizen Activists, except for that pesky provision of current law which says if they spend more than 10% of their time per month at the Capitol attempting to influence the outcome of legislation. Then they must cough up $300 and register as a Lobbyist.

For a description of the version as passed the House see my post on February 26th, the day after it passed.

The Senate has not taken action on House Bill 143, the other ethics bill proposed by Speaker Ralston and which passed the House on February 25th.

Jim Galloway spoke with Speaker Ralston after the Senate vote.

In any fight over what is – and what isn’t – good and moral behavior, moral high ground is essential. That’s what the coming few days will be about, and the House speaker knows it. “I think what both chambers have to ask themselves is, what really keeps the faith with the people of Georgia?” Ralston said.

Speaker Ralston is right. There has been plenty written and said about changing how things are done under the Gold Dome and often it seems doing what’s best for the people of Georgia has been shoved aside in an effort to score political points. We have three Legislative days to pass a bill and I for one don’t want to wait until next year. The Senate and House versions of this bill are not so far apart that a reasonable agreement can’t be reached.

Dalton’s Mayor David Pennington On Ethics Reform

Dalton Mayor David Pennington sent out an email about the importance of meaningful ethics reform in Georgia government.  It’s quite a good read.

Ethical Behavior … we know it when we see it

 Georgia’s economy is hamstrung by outdated economic and education policies, resulting in too many of our fellow citizens struggling to get by and requiring long term public assistance.  Bold policy changes are required if Georgia is to regain her competitive edge, but change is hard.  While the status quo is not serving us well, it is familiar; and we will follow our elected leaders down an uncharted path only if we trust them.  That’s why ethics reform is crucial.

While not a panacea, ethics reform can provide a solid foundation to ease political ethical conflicts. The current reform effort is focused solely on monetary gifts to legislators.  While a necessary component, gift caps alone are insufficient.  There are two additional reforms that would go a long way toward fostering trust in state government.  First, require the state legislature to operate under the open meetings and open records law.  Second, require a two-year hiatus before a state legislator can accept a fulltime job in state government.

Read more

Halftime In The Ethics Reform Effort

Yesterday the House passed HB142 and HB143, Speaker Ralston’s ethics reform bills. HB142 passed by a vote of 164-4 and HB143 passed unanimously.

HB143 is a rather simple bill. It requires Legislators who receive donations after the December 31st reporting deadline and before the beginning of the Legislative session (the second Monday of January) to file a report detailing the donations received. Currently such donations would not be reported until the March 31st report in election years or the June 30th report in non-election years. The bill also allows local elected officials who collect less than $2500 during a reporting period to file their disclosure reports locally rather than in Atlanta with the Campaign Finance Commission. Indications are this provision could significantly reduce the workload of the CFC, allowing them more time and resources to do the other things they are tasked with doing.

HB142 does several things: it bans gifts and meals to individual Legislators, restores rule making authority to the Georgia Campaign Finance and Transparency Commission, and clarifies the registration process for Lobbyists by removing the confusing 10% rule. Stopping unlimited lobbyist expenditures and restoring rule making authority to the Campaign Finance Commission are two key things ethics reformers have been calling for. Make no mistake, banning lobbyist gifts and meals to individual Legislators represents a significant change in the culture of the Capitol.

Much of the public discussion thus-far about HB142 centered around the lobbyist registration requirements. My reading of this bill, as well as my discussions with others about this bill lead me to believe no citizen will be hindered from speaking to Legislators (see lines 305-309 of the bill). Other exemptions for citizens are spelled out in lines 310 – 352. In addition, the registration fee for all lobbyists was reduced to $25. If someone speaks on behalf of an organization for the purposes of influencing the outcome of Legislation, they are exempted from reporting requirements if they are not paid for their lobbying (see lines 275-290). I think these provisions are fair. At some point the public has a right to know who is at the Capitol trying to influence Legislator’s votes. We can provide lobbyist transparency without hindering citizens from speaking to their Elected Officials.

We’ve debated the topic of ethics reform on Peach Pundit for a long, long time. Much has been said and much more will be said in the coming days. The process of ethics reform during this Legislative session has reached half time. Now the Senate will weigh in. There is still a long way to go but we took an important step yesterday in improving our laws.

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside Glenn Richardson

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” – Sir Winston Churchill

Former Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson has a secret once valued at nearly $220,000. Inquiring minds would like to know what happened to the money from his PAC. As Jim Walls over at Atlanta Unfiltered wrote:

Richardson closed out his campaign account when he resigned in December 2009, transferring $219,915 to the MMV Alliance Fund, a political action committee that he controls. He had to pay a $500 fine because MMV had not been granted a federal tax exemption (and therefore was not yet considered a charity) when he moved the money.

According to the Atlanta Unfiltered story, Richardson states that between $100,000 and $110,000 is left. As to the remainder, Richardson cites his own attorney, stating nothing has yet been done that requires filing with either state or federal authorities.

As discussed here on Peach Pundit, Richardson is seeking a Georgia Senate position in an upcoming special election caused when Georgia Senator Bill Hamrick was appointed to a judgeship.

With one hundred thousand dollars seed money and a bevy of old, moneyed interests on speed dial, Richardson cannot be ignored. That kind of money and access can buy a lot of political ads begging forgiveness.

Now that Richardson has made the questionable decision to re-enter the political arena, he has again found the spotlight. His actions beg questions; however, and answers will be sought.

As for where the money has gone and where the remainder will go, let’s consult Sir Winston and update his quote: I cannot forecast to you the action of Speaker Richardson. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Glenn Richardson’s personal interest.

Additional sources:

No rules apply to spending by ex-speaker’s political fund
Ethics agency probing ex-speaker’s $220K fund transfer

Gift Cap? Forget That, How ’bout A Gift Ban?

Jim Galloway dropped off this little nugget as he was heading out of town.

Last week, 87 percent of GOP voters in the July 31 primary endorsed the cap, which Ralston has called a “gimmick.” To give the speaker his due, it is indeed a low bar. A lobbyist would be able to spend $100 on a lawmaker’s breakfast, and still be allowed to buy him a $100 lunch.

We’ve gotten reliable information – and not from a single source — that House Republican leaders are considering legislation next January that would ban all lobbyist spending on lawmakers altogether. Nothing. Zip. Nada. And that Ralston is among those who have expressed interest in this path.

Discuss.

Some Complaints Dismissed, Others Settled Against Deal.

Atlanta Unfiltered has the details. The complaint dealing with air travel was dismissed.

Earlier today, Deal agreed to pay $3,350 in “administrative fees” after state investigators found dozens of minor violations in his 2010 campaign finance disclosures.

In one consent order approved this morning by the state ethics commission, Deal acknowledged 53 violations in reports on individual disclosures, which are considered “technical defects” under Georgia law. Generally, examples of technical defects include omitting a donor’s employer or full address or the purpose of an expenditure.

Deal’s attorney Randy Evans says they will seek to recover legal fees for the dismissed cases. Georgia Anderson filed these and several other complaints against Deal.

Final Results of T-SPLOST, Personhood Amendment, Ethics Text Poll

The Atlanta TEA Party and Peach Pundit teamed up with PolitiKlout to have a three question text poll regarding items on the July 31st GOP primary ballot, as well as T-SPLOST. The final cumulative results are:

Do you support the $.01 TSPLOST tax increase?

1) Yes 41% 2) No 57% 3) Undecided 2%

Do you support the $100 cap on lobbyist gifts to legislators?

1) Yes 75% 2) No 19% 3) Undecided 6%

Would you support a Personhood Amendment to the State Constitution?

1) Yes 45% 2) No 39% 3) Undecided 16%

Previously the Atlanta TEA Party and Peach Pundit asked about the Gift Cap and TSPLOST. The results were:

TSPLOST (results reported 5/14/12)
Yes – 46.36%
No – 51.40%
Und – 2.24%

Gift Cap (results reported 6/21/12)
Yes – 78.79%
No – 15.15%
Und – 6.06%

Please don’t ask me for the total votes cast because I don’t know.