March 28, 2013 — Sen. Jeff Mullis wants to level the playing field regarding campaign fund-raising for legislative races (because incumbents are at such a disadvantage). A worthy goal, but I’d do it a little differently. Five ideas to improve Georgia’s campaign finance laws:
1) Bar incumbent legislators from accepting political contributions if they don’t draw opposition at qualifying time.
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.”
Georgia’s Code of Ethics does not apply to members of local school boards, the Supreme Court of Georgia said today in a unanimous decision. The high court ruled that former Gov. Sonny Perdue had no authority in August 2010 to remove three members of the Warren County Board of Education for alleged misconduct.
Investigators have reportedly questioned Atlanta’s Stan Thomas about possibly illicit payments tied to development of a proposed Cayman Islands resort. Thomas has been in the headlines in recent years for his relationship with former Gov. Sonny Perdue and the somewhat spectacular collapse of his real-estate empire. Now, according to news reports, Royal Cayman police say they are investigating allegations that Thomas paid Cayman premier McKeeva Bush as much as $375,000 in 2004.
Ronnie Chance has neglected to disclose several aspects of his personal finances in recent years, most notably a condo in downtown Atlanta that he purchased from lobbyist Christina Searles Tai. Chance also omitted his service on the boards of directors of three local non-profit groups. (After the Transparency Project asked him about the omissions, Chance corrected several years’ disclosures to include the condo and his board memberships.)
The chairman of the Georgia Campaign Finance Commission, who says his appointment may have been illegal, is stepping down.
Patrick Millsaps, who initiated the personnel moves that cost the commission its top two investigators, will continue to serve until a replacement is named.
Fellow travelers Vincent Fort and Jim Wooten are among those who think Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, needs to resign over the chamber’s complicity in covering up the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. If he does, Williams will leave behind an annual salary nearing 7 figures.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart knows how to take care of his own. Ehrhart — CEO of a non-profit group that helps donors get state tax credits for gifts to religious schools — sponsored a new law in 2011 that raises the limit on those credits and eases restrictions on how contributions may be spent. The Cobb County lawmaker has never disclosed his role with the non-profit on disclosure forms mandated by state law.
Mark Elgart, when not scaring the pants off of local school boards, draws a paycheck of more than $350,000 from this Alpharetta-based non-profit, Advance Education Inc. Tax records show four other senior staffers also earn $150,000 or more.
The site of the Oaky Woods wildlife area sold for such a sweet price in 2004 that the sale cannot be used to determine a value today, state appraisers say. The state last week forked over $2,860 an acre — 75 percent more than the ’04 price — for a portion of the tract. A subsidiary of Synovus Financial, the Columbus-based banking giant that’s lost a pile on bad real-estate loans, pocketed about a third of the proceeds.
DirectTV customers in Georgia could qualify for a financial settlement or other restitution under a deal announced Wednesday. The satellite-TV provider and 49 states settled claims of deceptive and unfair sales practices, including renewing sports packages without customers’ knowledge, failing to properly disclose contract terms and substituting cash-back deals with bill credits.
State officials today agreed to pay $28.7 million for a 10,000-acre bear habitat in middle Georgia but still won’t release the appraisals used to determine that value. Houston County values the land at $1,165 an acre for tax purposes. The sellers, who paid $1,600 an acre six years ago before the real estate market collapsed, are selling it to the state for $2,875 an acre. Officials released appraisal summaries that say the property is worth that much, but declined to disclose the full appraisals until the deal is closed.