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‘Transparency’: Lawmaker’s $40K consulting deal undisclosed
By JIM WALLS
Nov. 15, 2010 — A powerful Cobb County legislator collected $40,000 last year to do research to help an advocacy group decide the best way to ask the Legislature for money.
Whether that’s a potential conflict of interest is anybody’s guess.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, an 11-term member from Powder Springs, and his client, Friends of Arts & Culture, both say he did not help to write a bill that would have allowed local referendums on arts funding. Nor did he help move it through the Legislature, they say.
“I never consult on any type of legislation that’s going on here,” he said. “I don’t do anything that’s even on the edge.”
Ehrhart did not disclose the client or the $40,000 fee on his annual financial disclosure reports — Georgia’s Ethics in Government Act does not require him to. Nor did he disclose the name of his consulting business, although the law does require that information.
This is what passes for transparency in the Georgia Legislature.
State law requires elected officials to identify their employers, so the public will know their primary source of income. But the dozens of lawyers and self-employed consultants serving in the Legislature have no obligation to report top clients who provide most of that income.
And, if officials don’t fully disclose their financial interests, the State Ethics Commission has few resources to ferret that out.
Both Stacey Abrams, the new Democratic leader in the Georgia House, and Common Cause Georgia chairman Bob Irvin, the former Republican leader in that chamber, say they don’t believe the law should inhibit members’ ability to make a living.
But, Irvin said, Georgia needs stronger laws to inform the public about possible conflicts of interest.
State law focuses on disclosure of campaign finances, “but every bit as important and in some cases more important are potential conflicts of interest,” he said. “The ethics mechanisms have never focused on that at all. … It’s a huge gap.”
Georgia’s new ethics law, which takes effect in January, says a legislator who tries to exploit his or her position for “direct, unique, pecuniary and personal benefit” has a conflict of interest. Deciding whether there’s a conflict will be up to other legislators in the House or Senate.
Abrams, who co-sponsored the arts bill, said she believes in a part-time citizen legislature whose members have full-time jobs elsewhere.
But, she said, “that can create the opportunity for relationships that can be a bit too close … I think there’s a need for more clarity in what is permissible and what is not.”
Friends of Arts & Culture was formed last year to lobby for sustainable public funding for the arts. In the 2010 legislative session, the group pushed House Bill 1049, which would have allowed voters to approve a fraction-of-a-penny local option sales tax as a dedicated revenue stream for the arts.
The state Senate passed a version of the bill that died in the final hours of the session. Friends of Arts & Culture – now known as Georgia Communities for Growth, to emphasize the economic development benefits of strong arts programs – plans to try again in 2011.
In the summer of 2009, Friends paid Ehrhart’s consulting business, known as ECS, $40,000 to research models used for public arts funding elsewhere in the United States, said banker Virginia Hepner, who leads the organization. ECS also reviewed current laws in Georgia, she said, and advised on what steps — a constitutional amendment, changes in state law and/or local legislation – Georgia might need to adopt similar measures.
Friends used Ehrhart’s research to craft its legislative strategy, Hepner said, but he played no role in drafting the bill.
“He didn’t testify. He didn’t write it. We didn’t ask his opinion on whether it would fly in Georgia,” Hepner said.
She acknowledged that Ehrhart’s legislative experience gave him an advantage in winning the work over two other bidders.
“We obviously wanted the benefit of someone who is very, very knowledgeable about legislation and Georgia,” she said. “That is of great value to us.”
At the time Ehrhart performed the consulting work, he chaired the House Rules Committee, one of the most powerful positions in state government since it controls which bills will get a full vote by the House. He lost the chairmanship in January after Rep. David Ralston became speaker of the House.
Friends took pains to distance itself from any perception that it paid Ehrhart for his support, she said.
“We basically wanted to make sure it was very clear that we hired his firm for this project, and that was done in August,” she said.
Ehrhart said he’s very careful to separate his consulting business from his legislative duties. “I’ve been very comfortable with my own ethics.”
He listed his occupation as “consultant” on his most recent financial disclosure, but made no mention of ECS.
“I’d have to check the form,” he said when I asked him about the omission last summer. “If I’ve made a clerical error, I’ll be happy to go in and change it.”
Disclosure requirements are written quite narrowly and do not cover many circumstances in which there could be a conflict.
A candidate for statewide office must disclose any payment of $9,000 or more from a group represented by a lobbyist. But legislators, even powerful committee chairmen, have no such requirement.
Even if Ehrhart were running for statewide office, he would only have to reveal the payment if his client employed a lobbyist at the time. Friends of Arts & Culture did not hire a lobbyist until several months after it severed his relationship with Ehrhart.
Ehrhart said he’s been a private consultant for many years, even when he worked full-time for The Facilities Group, a Marietta-based engineering and construction firm.
“I try to make a living,” he said. “I’m a single parent. I had to raise two children.”
Ehrhart would reveal only the sketchiest details of the arrangement with the arts-advocacy group. “I don’t discuss my private business,” he said.
Nor would he name his other clients or the specifics of his consulting work.
“I do lot of political analysis, [and] marketing for not-for-profits. It’s not something I’m required to disclose.”
No, he’s not, nor are his colleagues in the Georgia Legislature. But, if lawmakers truly want to restore public confidence in government, it’s time that they should.
UPDATE: Perennial gadfly George Anderson has filed an occasionally coherent ethics complaint regarding this transaction with the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee. The complaint includes a copy of this article with a paragraph inserted by Anderson regarding his opinion of Common Cause Georgia chairman Bob Irvin.
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