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Ethics codes always leave lawyers room to argue
What’s the difference between an apparent conflict of interest and the real deal?
In the world of government ethics, it’s all about the language crafted by the lawyers and the wiggle room they’ve left for other lawyers to argue about.
Ethics codes in Georgia vary from one jurisdiction to another. Many prohibit a public officer from trading on his or her position for personal benefit but, as they say, the devil’s in the details.
The issue may come to a head this week in DeKalb County, where two housing officials have hit up NorSouth, a developer doing business with their agency, for charitable and campaign donations. DeKalb’s Board of Ethics, after a couple delays, is scheduled Wednesday to hear their case, which has drawn some high-powered legal talent.
George Maddox and Dorothy Williams, who serve on the DeKalb housing authority’s board, each solicited several thousand dollars in recent years from NorSouth, which has been redeveloping a county-owned housing project on Johnson Ferry Road. NorSouth gave $500 to Maddox’s church to help with a new roof and $2,500 to a non-profit group that raises money for the Lou Walker Senior Center. Williams and a third member of the housing authority’s board, Carleen Cumberbatch, serve on the non-profit’s board.
NorSouth and its owner also gave $2,000 to Maddox, a former state legislator, for two unsuccessful political campaigns.
NorSouth vice president David Dixon mentioned the payments — in what he later termed an unfortunate choice of words — in an e-mail last year to the authority’s executive director. Dixon wrote that he planned to contact the two commissioners to lobby for the next phase of the Johnson Ferry project.
“They’ve both called on me for fundraising at various times — to which I responded generously — so I feel I have enough of a relationship to at least call them and discuss ‘where we are’ in a quiet environment,” he wrote.
Under DeKalb’s ethics code, a county official may not accept or request anything of value if “it tends to influence him in the discharge of his official duties.” The housing authority ultimately tabled Dixon’s request, so his lawyers argue there was no influence and no ethics violation.
Lawyers Amol Naik and Sharon Gay, in a formal response to the charges on Dixon’s behalf, warned that finding an ethics violation “would effectively open the floodgates to challenges … to every campaign contribution made to any campaign in DeKalb County.” (We wouldn’t want that, would we?)
Similarly, the lawyers said, such a ruling would have a “severe and immediate” chilling effect on charitable giving in DeKalb.
Both lawyers have plenty of experience in the public sector. Naik ‘s other clients include Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, while Gay served as former Mayor Bill Campbell’s executive counsel and deputy chief of staff.
Down the road at the State Capitol, in a different setting, lawmakers set an even higher bar for themselves this year when they amended Georgia’s ethics law. It’s a conflict of interest, they said, for a legislator to exploit his or her position for “direct, unique, pecuniary, and personal benefit.”
DeKalb’s Housing Authority has yet another ethics policy — which has not been invoked in the present case — that bars vendors from making a “direct or indirect inducement” to board members. The policy does not define “inducement,” leaving room for doubt if a board member is not induced to do something.
Georgia law already makes bribery a crime. An ethics code, if it’s to be of any value, should provide clear guidance for behavior that is not criminal but might compromise an official’s decisions.
In my book, a public official who approaches a vendor or special-interest group with his hand out for money is asking for trouble, particularly when it becomes a pattern. How could it be an arms-length transaction when the person writing the check — whether it’s a campaign contribution or a gift to charity — has to wonder what might happen if he doesn’t?
Georgia’s ethics rules still don’t adequately address that concept. But they do provide lots of opportunities for billable hours for the lawyers.