Ethics panel braces for suit over failing to enforce law
By JIM WALLS
Washington avoided a government shutdown last month, but ethics enforcers in Georgia soon will face the prospect of shutting down their key function — enforcing ethics laws.
In fact, members of the State Campaign Finance Commission are already planning their legal defense in case someone sues them for failing to do their job.
The commission learned Tuesday it has about $5,000 budgeted for the coming year to notify candidates and lobbyists who violate disclosure laws. That’s $125,000 less than executive secretary Stacey Kalberman estimated she would need.
Kalberman had planned to send the notices by certified e-mail at a cost of 32 cents each. But state lawmakers promptly amended the state’s ethics law to require certified snail mail with return receipt, costing $5.54 a pop.
Meeting Tuesday to discuss the agency’s 2012 budget, which takes effect July 1, Chairman Patrick Millsaps wanted to be sure the commission is protected if it winds up in court for neglecting its duties.
“Let’s assume we run out of money for operating expenses and we no longer can send things out certified mail by halfway through our fiscal year,” Millsaps asked assistant attorney general Meron Dagnew. “If we’re not able to do something the statute tells us to do because of no money, what is our legal exposure?”
Dagnew said someone could well ask a judge to issue a writ of mandamus, which requires a government agency to perform an action required by law, but she couldn’t predict the outcome.
“What would happen legally when you get to litigating the actual cause of action, I don’t know,” she said. “If you don’t have the budget to do something, what are you supposed to do?”
Dagnew will brief the commission on a possible defense at its next meeting. Common Cause Georgia, the good-government advocacy group, is not planning a mandamus action, but “it’s something I think we should look into,” executive director William Perry said today.
State law requires the commission to make sure disclosures have been filed properly and completely, notify violators of problems prior to taking any enforcement action, and audit disclosures for possible errors or omissions. Budget cuts may undermine the commission’s ability to fulfill all of those duties, members say.
The commission has $1,084,000 to spend in 2012 — down 8 percent from this year and 42 percent from 2008. All but about $168,000 is tied up in payroll and benefits for a staff of 10 people.
Of the remainder, $25,000 is set aside for office supplies, maintenance, court costs, travel for staffers conducting educational workshops across Georgia for potential candidates for elected office.
“Really I might have $5,000” for mailings, Kalberman told commissioners. “And that really is taking away from any traveling my education staff might do.”
Lawmakers have suggested the commission has failed to figure in revenue from filing fees for late campaign disclosures. The commission gets to keep $25 from each late filing fee.
But there’s only a 50 percent collection rate on late fees, Kalberman said Tuesday, “so that doesn’t really help us very much.” Court costs alone preclude pursuing non-payers, and the commission doesn’t want to tie up Attorney General Sam Olens’ lawyers on minor collection cases.
“We would rather seek their assistance in more important matters,” Kalberman said.