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Ga.’s ethics reform: Look a little closer at the fine print
By JIM WALLS
May 3, 2010 — Georgia lawmakers hail their 2010 ethics bill as a much-needed reform that toughens ethics fines and shines a brighter light on money flowing from campaign donors and lobbyists.
But it always helps to read the fine print.
Maximum fines for violating campaign finance and disclosure laws would double, but only for repeat offenses that rarely come before the State Ethics Commission. Fines for first offenses remain capped at $1,000.
Late fees for financial disclosures, now capped at $75, would climb to $1,000 for a candidate who’s 45 days late. The Ethics Commission has done little in recent years to collect unpaid late fees. Higher penalties might make those collection efforts cost-effective.
Candidates in city and county elections will have to disclose campaign finances electronically to be posted on the Internet, rather than on paper with their city clerk or election supervisor. As one lawmaker put it, “Watch out, Boss Hogg.” Transparency advocates had long pushed for this requirement. But other language in the bill appears contradictory, stating that candidates who raise less than $20,000 are “encouraged, but not required” to file electronically. The vast majority of candidates fall below that threshold.
Regardless, the Ethics Commission says it will be the place for all local candidates to report campaign contributions and spending.
“We believe they absolutely have a duty to report electronically,” said Stacey Kalberman, the agency’s executive secretary. “It’s going to be our stance that everybody files electronically.”
Other potential winners and losers if Gov. Sonny Perdue signs the bill into law:
Winners: Attractive employees and interns. At the last minute, the House included sexual harassment in the offenses that the House and Senate ethics committees may investigate. Such complaints would remain in the purview of the Legislature, which is not subject to the Open Records Act.
Losers: Lobbyists. They will have to keep ponying up for those pricey meals and primo sports tickets that seem so important for “relationship building” with lawmakers. The House rejected a proposal to limit gifts to $100 or to $50 with an exemption for meals and beverages.
Lobbyists also would have to report what they spend to schmooze lawmakers at least 15 times a year, up from six, and would owe the state $10,000 if they file more than 45 days late.
(The ethics bill also would increase lobbyists’ annual registration fee from $200 to $300. But that doesn’t much matter, since Georgia stopped collecting that fee when a federal court ruled it unconstitutional in 1994.)
Winners: Top state executives who want to become lobbyists. Legislators defeated a proposed one-year ban on executives appointed by the governor from registering to lobby other state officials.
Loser: Citizens filing ethics complaints. They would risk having to pay their targets’ legal costs if their accusations were deemed “frivolous” — a term that the bill does not define. In 2007, lawmakers dismissed a complaint that House Speaker Glenn Richardson had an affair with a lobbyist as being built on “vague charges based on gossip and rumor.” That doesn’t seem all that far from “frivolous.”
Winners: Retiring legislators, who still may transfer all their leftover campaign cash to a political action committee with virtually no restriction on how to spend it. A bill with broad bipartisan support to limit such transfers died in committee.
Losers: Lawmakers who abuse their power by threatening to use a state agency for coercion, retaliation or punishment. The House and Senate ethics committees could now investigate those actions, too. (But, why exactly is that not simply a crime?)
Winners: Executive directors and appointed members of state boards, commissions and authorities. All — even those that oversee billion-dollar budgets — would be exempt from disclosing personal finances. They would have to report financial transactions with state agencies and sign an affidavit that they’ve taken no official action to benefit their pocketbooks.
Loser: Last, but certainly not least, the receptionist at the Ethics Commission, who now would have to answer the phone with “Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. How may I direct your call?” Try saying that five times quickly.