By JIM WALLS March 23, 2015 — The state ethics commission’s former top investigator pleaded guilty today to federal corruption charges. Robert Bentivegna, as a Dunwoody police detective in 2011, misused his access to the Georgia Crime Investigation Center’s database in exchange for valuable gifts for himself and his family, federal prosecutors said. He pleaded […]
Oct. 8, 2013 — Georgia lawmakers touted their 2013 ethics bill as historic, noting that they’d restored rule-making authority to the Campaign Finance Commission. Now, though, House Speaker David Ralston’s lawyer, Doug Chalmers, contends the commission can’t enforce a key disclosure rule on campaign spending. That interpretation, if it prevails, could muzzle the watchdog charged with policing campaign finance and disclosure in Georgia. Politicians could obscure details of countless dollars in campaign spending simply by using a personal credit card and getting reimbursed with campaign funds.
For a decade, infighting, vitriol and litigation has been business as usual at Georgia’s state ethics commission. Three executive directors have resigned or been fired since 2006. Two other employees collected $405,000 in damages for allegedly wrongful termination. Lawmakers stripped the agency of 40 percent of its funding, its power to make new rules, even its name. Much of this has come to pass, critics say, because the commission answers to the very politicians it’s supposed to regulate and investigate. Legislative leaders set its budget, control its powers and, along with the governor, decide who its five members will be. It’s time, former ethics chief Teddy Lee says, for a truly independent commission. “It’s got to be set up in a way that it can’t be manipulated,” says Lee, “by people who have no desire to be overseen or second-guessed.”
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. Here’s why …
Dec. 14, 2011 — Remember the Georgia Legislature’s promise last year to impose tough new penalties for violators of campaign finance laws? Not gonna happen — at least not yet.
Starting this year, candidates could be fined $1,375 for filing a financial disclosure 45 days late. But legislators didn’t provide the money to pay for late notices, so the maximum fine for now is just $125.
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.
Georgia legislators last week took back an extra $30,000 budgeted to enforce ethics laws in 2012, leaving the State Campaign Finance Commission yet again to do more paper-shuffling and less investigating. “We really only have time to go after the most egregious of cases,” executive secretary Stacey Kalberman said.
State senators this week agreed to give the State Campaign Finance Commission a fraction of the sum needed to meet new requirements for enforcing ethics laws. The Senate recommended a $30,000 bump for the agency’s certified mail expenses, rather than the requested $130,000, and none of the $290,000 sought for processing and posting thousands of local candidates’ financial disclosures online.
Picture a few Georgia legislators in a karaoke bar, swaying back and forth and belting out the Stone’s “Under My Thumb.” Or maybe a little Cee Lo. That should give you a good sense of the message that lawmakers sent last week to the State Campaign Finance Commission. Gov. Nathan Deal has already signed an ethics bill that gives the commission more work and more expenses and rebuffs a bid to restore some of its power.
Complying with new campaign finance requirements next year could cost state overseers $420,000 to $1 million that they do not have, Senate budget writers learned today. Without more funding needed to notify violators, the state can’t properly enforce the law, one official said: “People will catch on fairly quickly that they do not have to pay late fees and do not have to comply with the act.”
The State Ethics Commission in coming months will talk to the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House about their alleged ethics violations. At roughly the same time, the agency’s leadership will ask these very same officials for more money to fulfill its mission and to restore powers that have been stripped away in recent years. This would make sense in only two places: the Georgia Capitol and Alice’s Wonderland. You can decide where the hatter is madder.
Twice a year, members of the Cobb County ethics board meet to deal with housekeeping matters. Then they go home. For a time last year, DeKalb’s ethics board couldn’t even muster a quorum. And in Fulton, a state legislator contends the ethics board cannot impose fines or sanctions because its members were appointed improperly. Bottom line: Local ethics boards get no respect.