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.”
By JIM WALLS Sherry Streicker was told her job at the state ethics commission went away last year because of budget issues, not her performance. But when a new position opened there with nearly identical duties, she says in a new whistleblower suit, she couldn’t even get in the door for an interview. Streicker and […]
Former state ethics official Rick Thompson says Georgia doesn’t need all the auditors and investigators it once had because auditing of politicians’ financial disclosures is now automated. This would seem to refute some of my recent findings about weak ethics enforcement in Georgia.
Except, of course, that it’s not true.
Atlanta’s Board of Ethics, which has operated for six months without an ethics officer, will have to make do a bit longer. Stacey Kalberman, the board’s unanimous choice for the job, withdrew Sunday as the City Council pondered whether to choose the ethics officer itself. “I frankly became disheartened when that happened,” Kalberman said.
An Atlanta city councilman who tangled with the city’s ethics officer last year wants to place that job under the council’s control. Lamar Willis‘ proposal calls for the Board of Ethics to give the council three names to consider, rather than just one, to fill a vacancy pending since September. Ethics advocates fear the plan would politicize the appointment process and jeopardize the board’s independence. Former ethics officer Ginny Looney won settlements against Willis and five other council members since 2008
. Willis said his proposal has nothing to do with his $3,500 ethics fine nor his complaint that the board’s case against him was “piling on” and not even “remotely necessary.”
Rep. Ed Rynders charged the state ethics commission last week with wasteful spending even though he and House budget officials knew little or nothing about some of the details, interviews with state officials show. Nevertheless, the agency’s critics did not retreat
, while acknowledging that they really didn’t know enough in some cases to render an opinion. “Until you have the detail, it’s kinda hard to say whether it was a good or bad management decision,” House Budget Director Martha Wigton said.
Georgia Inspector General Deron R. Hicks says his staff found no evidence that his boss, Gov. Nathan Deal, pressed for the firing of the top two investigators at the ethics commission. The question is: How hard did he really look? Hicks’ inquiry did not address important disputed points, including whether the commission’s chairman, after being reappointed by Deal, had truly recused himself from an investigation of the governor’s campaign finances.
Ethics probes involving Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston and former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine are in limbo today as the attorneys conducting those investigations look for new jobs. Stacey Kalberman and Sherilyn Streicker, the top two staffers at the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, learned last week they must clean out their desks by June 30.
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.
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.”