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Common Cause: Ethics bill includes junket protection, gadfly intimidation
March 31, 2010 — Call it the 2010 Georgia Junket Protection Act.
Ethics legislation pushed by House Speaker David Ralston would exempt lobbyists from having to disclose what they spend to fly, feed and house lawmakers attending their annual conventions, which often seem to be held in warm, sunny climes near a large body of water.
This is just one way, Common Cause Georgia says, in which the state’s ethics laws are about to take several steps backward.
The good-government advocacy group applauded Ralston’s bill for jacking up fines for ethics violations and requiring many city and county officials to disclose their campaign and personal finances online.
But several provisions would weaken current ethics law, Common Cause executive director Bill Bozarth said in a news release.
The bill would exempt lobbyists from having to disclose payments for “actual and reasonable expenses for food, beverages, travel, transportation, lodging, registration, and other related activities for a meeting which is provided to a public officer to permit such public officer’s participation in such meeting.” Members of appointed boards and authorities would also be dropped from the list of officials required to file financial disclosure statements.
According to a more detailed analysis by Common Cause:
“This opens a giant loophole where tens and tens of thousands of dollars will go unreported. This is a giant step backward, and flies in the face of promises made to improve transparency of lobbyist activity. To exempt this type of disclosure is the exact opposite of what the citizens of Georgia have clearly asked for, and of what should be provided – a cap on lobbyist gifts to legislators. The substitute bill would also exclude members appointed to state boards and authorities from having to file financial disclosure reports, even if they’re presiding over billion-dollar budgets like the State Board of Regents or the DOT board.”
Other language would intimidate citizens from filing ethics complaints. The bill would hold a complainant liable for an official’s legal fees if the State Ethics Commission decided the case was frivolous. Says Common Cause:
“[T]o allow the Commission to impose attorney’s fees creates a significant risk of chilling the ability of concerned individuals to bring complaints to the Commission. The Commission is a body that should be open to the citizens of Georgia to bring forth what they see as improper actions in the campaign finance and lobbying arenas. To apply a potentially costly legal standard to all the citizenry will almost certainly discourage participation.”
The good government group also criticized the process by which ethics legislation is moving through the Legislature this year. An ethics bill with bipartisan support from 40 members of the House of Representatives, and several bills sponsored by Democrats, were bypassed in favor of new language drafted by the speaker’s staff:
“Instead of letting the reform agenda be driven by the bills submitted by the members, the Speaker unfortunately fell back on the patterns of past Speakers and crafted a new bill within the secrecy of his own office.
“The bill was brought to the House Ethics Committee at 10 am on March 25th. The Speaker himself presented the bill and took questions. There was no debate on the contents of the bill. All amendments, including a proposal to limit lobbyist gifts on items other than meals, failed on a party line vote. In less than two hours, the 2010 ethics bill was introduced, passed though committee, and sent on to Rules, where it will be structured in such a way as to not allow floor amendments.”