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State Ethics Commission dives down the rabbit hole — again
By JIM WALLS
The State Ethics Commission in coming months will talk to the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House about their alleged ethics violations.
At roughly the same time, the agency’s leadership will ask these very same officials for more money to fulfill its mission and to restore powers that have been stripped away in recent years.
This would make sense in only two places: the Georgia Capitol and Alice’s Wonderland. You can decide where the hatter is madder.
As long as the State Ethics Commission must go hat in hand to the governor and Legislature every year for a handout, it cannot be independent.
“It makes it very easy for legislators who don’t like a particular sanction handed out by the commission to take revenge by reducing funding or [taking] other retaliatory action,” said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “Speaker [Glenn] Richardson taking away their rule-making authority in 2009 is a good example of the latter.”
Richardson, as I recently noted, was speaker last year when the House insisted on clipping the commission’s wings so it may only create rules if the Legislature says so. Lawmakers were peeved at a rule requiring they report the value of donated airfare on private aircraft.
Nearly a year after Richardson’s resignation, I was pondering how else to illustrate this conflict when Randy Evans, Gov.-elect Nathan Deal’s lawyer on ethics matters, appeared before the commission.
Last Thursday, Evans was representing other clients — Rome-based State Mutual Insurance Co. and an affiliate — in a high-profile case alleging they tried to sneak $120,000 in political donations to Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine. The companies in 2008 wrote checks to 10 Alabama political action committees that returned the money to Georgia almost immediately as gifts to Oxendine’s campaign for governor. (Oxendine later returned the money.)
The insurance companies — owned and run by Dee Yancey, a longtime friend and hunting buddy of Oxendine’s — had no clue where the money would go once it left their hands, their attorneys contended last week. It was, they said, a coincidence.
Evans, at a probable cause hearing, argued a one-year statute of limitations should apply and the charges should be dismissed. Stefan Ritter, the state Law Department’s senior attorney on ethics issues, responded that the commission’s rules specify a five-year statute of limitations.
Ritter’s reasoning, Evans said, reflects the thinking that the commission had the power to usurp state law. “This case is probably a good explanation as to why your rule-making authority got narrowed,” he told commission members.
Later, Evans reminded the commission of its limited financial resources and warned that the agency really couldn’t afford it if a judge held it responsible for his client’s hefty legal fees.
“That’s just intimidation,” Ritter responded. “You should do the right thing under the law. We will defend your actions.”
Deal, even as he sorts through the commission’s funding and enforcement issues, will be preparing his defense in three fairly serious ethics cases. Three different complainants allege that the governor-elect:
- Misused as much as $37,000 from his gubernatorial campaign to pay legal costs associated with a federal ethics inquiry,
- Accepted $161,000 in excess campaign contributions, and
- Misled the public about his personal finances by filing three different disclosures within four months.
Evans said he was just reminding commission members last week of the possible consequences of their actions, not threatening them. Regardless, when the commission takes up these allegations, Evans will be the lawyer representing Deal.
UPDATE: The DeKalb County Board of Ethics last week found no violations by two board members of the county Housing Authority. George Maddox and Dorothy Williams solicited charitable donations from a developer doing business with the authority, and Maddox had also hit the developer up for campaign contributions. The ethics board held there was no evidence that the donations influenced the officials’ decisions.
(Mad Hatter illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web)