Secret ethics report: Ga. #3, not #50
By JIM WALLS
Jan. 26, 2013 — A privately commissioned study shows Georgia’s ethics laws are the third-best in the country, not the worst, House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson says.
This study will form the basis of an ethics bill that Wilkinson says he’ll introduce soon. But he will not make the study public, won’t say who conducted it or how much it cost.
“It’s mine,” he said Friday in a telephone interview. “It’s a working document.”
For nearly a year, Wilkinson has disputed a March 2012 report that ranked Georgia’s transparency and accountability practices last among the 50 states. The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, which commissioned the study, gave “F” grades to Georgia and seven other states.
Full disclosure: I was CPI’s Georgia reporter for the State Integrity Investigation, which rated each state against 330 indicators of government transparency and oversight.
I knew Joe didn’t like the project’s findings. But I didn’t know he was telling people that Georgia was actually #3 until the Reporter Newspapers posted Dan Whisenhunt’s article and video of the lawmaker’s remarks at a luncheon this week.
In the video, Wilkinson notes that CPI had previously ranked Georgia 7th in a comparison of disclosure requirements for state legislators. CPI’s much broader 2012 study, which assessed how Georgia lives up to those requirements and more in a dozen other categories, ranked Georgia 50th. Wilkinson maintains this broader analysis was unfair because it “changed the criteria” used to rank the states.
As he told constituents on the video:
We had an independent group study our ethics laws using the same criteria used last March by the Center for Public Integrity. (dramatic pause) We’re number three in the country. We’re number three.
But there is this media-driven misperception and we’re going to address it. We have to, because the citizens have confidence in all of us who are elected.
Whatever that means.
So I called Joe up to see about getting a copy of the report that purportedly refutes my findings. A #3 ranking would be big news. I thought I’d post this new research on Atlanta Unfiltered.
But Joe’s not giving it up.
“It’s mine,” he told me. “I’m using it for challenging a lot of your report and I also used it for the ethics legislation that’ll be coming out shortly.”
I suggested that challenging my report would be easier if readers could see exactly what points were disputed and the basis for those claims. No go.
Wilkinson allowed as how independent regulators and administrators and one attorney did the critique, but he wouldn’t tell me their names. He said he paid for it with personal funds, but wouldn’t say how much.
He said he might have released his report last year if CPI had disclosed who funded the State Integrity Investigation.
What difference would that make? I asked. “It makes a tremendous amount of difference,” he said, so people can “see if there’s an agenda.”
The Integrity Investigation’s website, as it happens, has always disclosed that it “was produced with important support from Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation, with additional support form Rockefeller Family Fund. The Wyncote Foundation has provided support for follow-up reporting on the project and its findings.”
None of those organizations contacted me during my research to share their agendas.
I wanted to find out more about Joe’s report and proposed legislation, but he hung up before I could ask more questions. I seem to have made him mad during this exchange:
Joe: “I don’t think you and I have anything to talk about, with all due respect.”
Me: How can people trust this independent study if you won’t make it public?
Joe: (No answer) Do you believe it’s true?
Me: No, I don’t.
Joe: “Well, OK. Goodbye sir.” (Click).
Joe, you gotta understand that I’ve spent 40 years in an industry where the grizzled city editor tells her reporters, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I believe I’ve spoken those words a time or two myself.
If you tell me Georgia is #3, Joe, I can’t believe it until I’ve checked it out. Particularly since I checked it out a year ago and came up with a different answer.
You can check out my findings, with footnotes for all my interviews and sources, here. Decide for yourself whether Georgia deserves an A or an F. I don’t know how you can check out the report that forms the basis of the House leadership’s ethics reform bill.
Because it’s a secret.