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Common Cause: Robocalls spur personal attack by House leader
Common Cause of Georgia just sent out this news release, which I post here in its entirety:
Atlanta, GA – In a surprising response to a letter sent to ethics committee conferees requesting consideration of amendments and informing members of advocacy calls to voters in their legislative districts, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal (R-Bonaire) replied with a terse, personal attack.
“Thank you for your incredibly sagacious suggestions. Whoever is paying you off is sure getting their money’s worth. Ps have you gotten your ethics fines settled? Sent from my iPhone” read the email from O’Neal.
“I was shocked by his response, I have always thought of him as a gentleman and a statesman. I was clearly wrong. And because our organization believes in full transparency, I feel the public needs to know the attitude that the House Leadership has towards meaningful ethics reform,” said William Perry, Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia and the recipient of O’Neal’s personal attack. “The message was sent from his official legislative email address, so perhaps a rogue staffer actually wrote the response and sent it, but at any rate, I think an apology is due.”
The email was sent to Perry in response to this letter which was sent as a courtesy to inform members of the conference committee that CCGA launched robocalls targeting ethics reform-minded voters in their districts. CCGA, along with members of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform are putting a full court press on members of the conference committee on ethics, asking them to create a compromise bill that will close large loopholes in HB 142, an ethics bill attempting to address lobbyist gifts to legislators. Ethics advocates feel the House Bill, supported by O’Neal, falls well short of meaningful reform.
“The House version of the bill still allows unlimited lobbyist spending on small groups of legislators and unlimited amounts of money spent on individual legislator’s travel within the United States. I don’t think that’s what 83% of primary voters called for in July’s primary election,” said Perry.
O’Neal’s reference to “ethics fines” are a result of two occasions were Perry paid fines for making a mistake by filing his lobbyist reports a few days after reporting deadlines. The fines were imposed by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly named the State Ethics Commission, but stripped of that name because legislative leaders did not want to receive an “ethics” fine). Perry is the first to admit he made mistakes, but points out he made amends by paying the fines as soon as he realized he missed the deadlines.
Addressing O’Neal’s remark about the fines, Perry said, “This goes to show those who so often use ‘gotcha politics’ as an excuse to avoid meaningful reform are the first to jump up and say ‘gotcha’ when an honest mistake is made. Perhaps Mr. O’Neal would also like to take issue with the ParkAtlanta fine I recently paid for an expired meter. Like everyone else, I occasionally miss a deadline, but that doesn’t deserve criticism when calling to limit lobbyist gifts to legislators.”
“House leaders have been pushing my fines as a story to the press to no avail – no one has written a story about it because reasonable people understand mistakes are made. There was no attempt to hide anything, mistakes happened, and I paid fines as a result of those mistakes – I made no excuses” added Perry.
As for being accused of being “paid off” Perry responded, “Mr. O’Neal has received over $63,000 in gifts from lobbyists in just 8 years. That’s more than my annual salary – yet he accuses me of being paid off? This is why Georgia is the punch line of ethics reform jokes, and will remain such unless legislators like Mr. O’Neal start taking reform seriously. He has a chance to do that on this conference committee. Let’s hope he starts focusing on what 1.2 million voters asked for this summer instead of attacking non-profit, good-government advocates like me.”
According to the State Integrity Investigation, a nationwide comparison of state’s ethics laws and corruption potential, Georgia ranks 50th – worst in the nation.
Editor’s note: The reference to $63,000 in lobbyist gifts is based on my Transparency Project profile of Larry O’Neal. The State Integrity Investigation’s ranking of Georgia as #50 was based on my reporting on ethics and transparency practices in Georgia. (I didn’t do the rankings, just the reporting.)