Georgia law books are chock-full of statutes written to curtail undue influence on political activity and public policy. So utilities and insurance companies can’t give to a candidate seeking an office that regulates them. Legislators can’t take political donations while in session. Politicians can’t use campaign money for personal benefit. State workers can’t accept gifts from vendors or lobbyists.
Except when they can.
Time and again, Georgia journalists and watchdog groups have found that money finds a way to flow around those laws. These and similar findings underscore what can sometimes be a gaping divide between Georgia’s legal standards for public accountability, on the one hand, and everyday practice. In a new, state-by-state analysis of ethics and accountability practices, Georgia ranks 50th with a grade of F from the State Integrity Investigation.
Everyone should make resolutions for the New Year, if only to have new goals. In that spirit, we offer 10 suggestions for Georgia legislators to strengthen government ethics in 2011. Among them: Let’s make ex-Speaker Glenn Richardson the last legislator to transfer all his leftover campaign cash to a committee where he can spend it any way he wishes.
What’s the difference between an apparent conflict of interest and the real deal? In the world of government ethics, it’s all about the language crafted by the lawyers and the wiggle room they’ve left for other lawyers to argue about. Ethics codes in Georgia vary from one jurisdiction to another. Many prohibit a public officer from trading on his or her position for personal benefit but, as they say, the devil’s in the details.
Political action committees in Georgia operate with little oversight. They don’t have to report spending that’s not campaign-related. Nothing in campaign law addresses how PACs spend their money, the State Ethics Commission observed in 2008. “We did some advisory opinions because we were hoping people would get outraged enough and push for legislation,” said Rick Thompson, the agency’s former executive secretary. It hasn’t worked so far. Georgia lawmakers are sifting through a slew of ethics bills, but none address PAC spending.
Former Georgia House Speaker Terry Coleman used $3,758 in left-over campaign funds to pay a property tax bill in Henry County. Coleman’s latest campaign disclosure, filed Friday evening, shows he made the payment May 14. State law forbids using campaign money for personal benefit. Taxes are generally regarded as a personal expense.
News release from the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta: STEVEN H. BALLARD, 53, of McDonough, Georgia pleaded guilty today in federal district court to committing a real estate investment scam that lasted over five and a half years and defrauded over a dozen victims in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.