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Legislative ethics panel: Complainants must have firsthand knowledge
By JIM WALLS
How to request an ethics investigation of a Georgia legislator:
- File a complaint with the top official in the House or Senate.
- Wait to hear that your request doesn’t comply with the law.
That’s how George Anderson does it. The Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, which oversees state lawmakers’ conduct, does it that way, too.
Anderson last month lodged a complaint with the committee alleging a conflict on the part of Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Cobb County. The allegation cited my recent column that reported that Ehrhart’s consulting business produced a $40,000 study in 2009 for a group advocating public funding for the arts.
A self-styled ethics crusader, Anderson may file more ethics complaints than anyone on the planet. In addition to the Ehrhart case, he filed two others with the committee this year against House Speaker David Ralston, who chairs the committee, and dozens more over the years with other state agencies.
The speaker rejected each of Anderson’s complaints for failing to “comport” with requirements of the law. Anderson said he’ll keep trying.
Marshall Guest, Ralston’s spokesman, said those complaints don’t meet the “standard of knowledge” required by state law, which calls for allegations to be submitted in a sworn statement attesting to the complainants’ “best information, knowledge and belief.”
That, Guest said, means they must have firsthand knowledge.
“In the past, the committee has taken a hard stance against the filing of a complaint that wasn’t based on firsthand knowledge,” Guest wrote in an e-mail. The committee held to that standard in dismissing complaints in 2007 against Rep. Larry O’Neal and then-Speaker Glenn Richardson.
Personally, I would expect the law to say “firsthand knowledge” if that’s what it’s supposed to mean. The narrower interpretation would require you to investigate a possible conflict yourself before filing a complaint. Isn’t the committee supposed to do the investigating?
Other state oversight bodies don’t do it that way. The State Ethics Commission accepts complaints about campaign finance and lobbyist disclosures without requiring firsthand knowledge, as does the state Office of the Inspector General. The commission accepts complaints under identical statutory language: “best information, knowledge and belief.”
Inspector General Liz Archer even accepts anonymous complaints. She said she reviews Andersons’ regardless of the source of his information.
“Just because it’s George doesn’t mean he’s not going to get a valid response,” Archer said.
In the case at hand, Anderson complained that Ehrhart had failed to properly disclose his consulting business and that his work for the arts group violated the state’s ethics code.
At the time, Ehrhart chaired the House Rules Committee, arguably the second most-important position in the House, with the power to decide which bills make it to the full House for a vote. The arts group valued Ehrhart’s legislative knowledge but did not hire him to help pass the bill, board member Virginia Hepner said.
Ehrhart surveyed public funding for the arts elsewhere in the U.S. and discussed how those methods might be adapted for Georgia, Hepner said. “It was a really excellent summary of … the references in the Georgia code about arts [and] arts funding,” she said.
His report, I have learned, also recommended a very specific approach for seeking lawmaker’s OK for public funding in Georgia: a local option sales tax, for a fraction of a penny; polling to impress elected officials with the level of public support; use of Georgia-based political consultants; and no outside lobbyists. Friends, now known as Georgia Communities for Growth, let me read the 13-page report last week but not copy it.
Hepner said she has “no question at all” that Friends acted properly in hiring Ehrhart. He gave assurances that House rules permitted him to consult with the group, she said.
Ehrhart has said he didn’t help write the bill or help move it through that Legislature. Under that standard, any legislator could do business with any interest group, even those created expressly to lobby for a bill, as Friends was.
Heck, why not the speaker of the House? The president of the Senate? Where would you draw the line (if there even is one)?
Ehrhart didn’t return calls to discuss the matter. The Joint Legislative Ethics Committee won’t be handling any complaints about it. I might know enough to file a complaint that the committee would accept but, as a journalist, I can’t do that.
I can, however, ask questions. The Joint Legislative Ethics Committee will accept requests for advisory opinions for three more weeks, until it disbands in favor of separate ethics committees in the House and Senate. So I plan to write up my request this week. Then I’ll turn it in, and we’ll see what we will see.