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    State can’t explain ‘unexplained’ purchase by ethics agency

     

    By JIM WALLS

    Tying Up Loose Ends: The Georgia Secretary of State has no record of an allegedly “unexplained” purchase for $4,965 that was said to suggest financial mismanagement at the state ethics commission.

    Without documentation, we may never know what that purchase was for, or whether it really happened. We certainly can’t say whether it was questionable, as Rep. Ed Rynders of Albany did at a recent budget hearing.

    Here’s why …

    Last month, a coalition of advocacy groups called out the Georgia Legislature for budget cuts that they said had crippled the commission’s ability to enforce campaign and lobbyist disclosure laws. A week later, Rynders recited a list of what he said were dubious expenditures by the commission totaling nearly $50,000 over two years.

    “I just can’t help but wonder if we couldn’t fulfill the mission there if we managed it a little bit more properly,” he said at the time.

    Rynders’ one-page document, titled “Ethics Commission Bullet Points” in its electronic form, came from the House Budget Office, which emailed me a copy. Most of the spending, I reported later, had a reasonable purpose: renovations to better use office space, carpet removal required by the commission’s landlord, and out-sourced scanning to digitize its investigative files.

    One cited expense — “Unidentified P-card purchase — $4,965” — remained a mystery. Budget Officer Martha Wigton, before she stopped speaking to me, said she couldn’t say and didn’t know when that purchase was made or who the vendor was. Neither could the ethics commission, which referred me to the Secretary of State’s Office, to which it is administratively attached.

    The Secretary of State provided a list of every P-card purchase by the commission since July 2009 — a total of $11,739 of transactions, but none for more than $795. Every purchase lists the date, vendor and document number.

    I’ve called and emailed Wigton several times since then informing her of this fact and asking for evidence of the $4,965 purchase. I’ve gotten no response. Typically when that happens, I submit an Open Records request for the relevant documents. People may not want to talk, but documents often will.

    The General Assembly exempts itself from disclosure requirements of the Open Records Act, though. So we can’t know what that evidence is, or whether there is any.

    The Legislature may wind up giving the commission another $100,000 $250,000 next year for computer upgrades (badly needed, considering that its website has been down for three days now), but nothing more for enforcement staff. The commission, which employed three auditors and three investigators several years ago, is down to one auditor.

    That single auditor, new commission chief Holly LaBerge had said, was assigned to audit 10 percent of legislators’ campaign finance reports this year for accuracy and omissions. But, she said recently, other demands on the auditor’s time have made that impossible.

    LaBerge told members of the ethics commission not to worry, though, because she’d talked to legislators and they are well aware of the difficulty of achieving that goal.

    I’ll bet they are.

    UPDATE: I just got word that the state Senate’s version of the 2013 budget trims extra funding for the commission to $100,000 “to match actual agency requests for a database upgrade.” The House had voted for an additional $250,000.

     

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    One Response to “State can’t explain ‘unexplained’ purchase by ethics agency”

    1. FedUpInFulton says:

      Is anybody out there still wondering why Georgia government was rated LAST (50th) in ethics?

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