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Don’t kill the messenger — just fix it
A blog about public records and accountability …
March 19 — Today, you’ll see Georgia’s ranking in a new analysis of ethics and accountability practices across all 50 states. Georgians can no longer fall back on “Thank god for Alabama!” We are trailing the pack.
Detractors, predictably, have already surfaced to complain about the unfairness of Georgia’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking, which is based largely on my research and reporting. Some blame me personally, claiming I was biased going in to the project. I’ll address that criticism in just a bit. First, let me tell you what went into this analysis.
Nearly a year ago, the non-profit Center for Public Integrity engaged 50 investigative reporters to answer 330 questions on 14 aspects of governmental oversight, ranging from accountability of elected officials to budget and procurement procedures to management of the state’s workforce. The project assessed not just the relevant laws in each state, but also day-to-day practices to see how well those laws are followed.
In Georgia, I interviewed lobbyists, legislators, judges, journalists, good-government advocates and officials that oversee purchasing, pensions, insurance regulation, auditing and budgeting. I read statutes, court decisions, administrative rules, academic studies and hundreds of news articles until my vision seemed to blur permanently.
I also called on my 35 years’ experience covering state and local government in Georgia and learning how the system works. Since joining the State Integrity Investigation, I’ve learned more about the gap between rhetoric and reality of government accountability.
Take nepotism, for instance (please). The survey asked whether state law prevents nepotism, cronyism and patronage. Georgia’s law bars elected state officials, department heads and board members from advocating for the “advancement, appointment, employment, promotion or transfer” of a family member to a state job.
But what if an official’s family member (or two, or three) just happens to land a nice state job without an overt push by that official? Not a problem.
What about that official’s friends or political supporters? State law does not address cronyism and patronage.
What about city and county governments? The law doesn’t cover them either.
Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in covering the release of the Integrity Investigation, skims past its findings to focus on its credibility — and my alleged bias. The article devoted three paragraphs to the Georgia-specific content and 15 to the “controversy” about the center’s approach and my research.
My critics had not even read the comments and sources that backed up each finding, because those only became available this morning.
AJC reporter Chris Joyner, in seeking my response, asked me about my “subjective” answers to two questions raised by Rick Thompson, former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission. One was question #255, asking whether Georgia penalizes lobbyists who break the rules. The other, #56, asked about the quality of candidates’ campaign disclosures.
I scored both at 50, or “Fair,” on a scale of 0 to 100. I told Joyner that my sources, on both the lobbying and the candidate disclosure issues, included front-page stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
His response, essentially, was “Oh.”
Joyner’s article did not include that information. Nor is it clear whether he called Thompson back to discuss that supporting information. (Thompson’s consulting firm, by the way, was paid $55,000 in 2010 and 2011 by political campaigns, primarily Gov. Nathan Deal’s).
My reporting for the Center was edited, proofread and peer-reviewed. I’m the first to admit that I may have missed the mark on a few questions where Georgia should be ranked higher.
Revising those scores could move the state up from 50th to, say, 49th. Would that satisfy us?
Release of this survey is not the end of the process but the beginning. It identifies weaknesses and spotlights best practices that state governments can use to strengthen accountability and restore public confidence.
So, Georgia legislators:
- If you wince that Georgia scores a “zero” for lacking a state agency to enforce conflict-of-interest rules: Think about creating one.
- If it bugs you that Georgia did away with its Merit System and many of its protections: Give state workers more power to fight back when they’re fired or transferred to make way for someone with connections.
- If you’re embarrassed that officials who invest billions of dollars in Georgia pension funds don’t report their personal investments: Make them disclose.
Don’t look at me. I can’t fix it.