Are budget, staff cuts undermining ethics enforcement?
Gov. Sonny Perdue took office in 2003 vowing to push “comprehensive ethics reform” and reverse 140 years of entrenched, Democrat-controlled good-old-boy cronyism.
Georgia lawmakers shot down many of Perdue’s early ethics forays. Now, as the governor’s final year in office approaches, a legislative smackdown and heavy budget cuts suggest tougher ethics enforcement is an idea whose time has yet to come:
— The State Ethics Commission was stripped of its rule-making authority by legislators this session. So, uniquely among Georgia enforcement agencies, it may no longer create rules “necessary to carry out the purposes” of the Georgia Administrative Procedure Act.
— The Legislature this year slashed the commission’s budget by $600,000, or more than one-third. Its staff has thinned from a high of 21 employees to just 13.
— Lawmakers rejected higher penalties for candidates who file campaign finance reports late or not at all, which could have generated $300,000 to $400,000 a year to the state treasury. And, once again, lawmakers chose not to reinstate lobbyist registration fees, which might have raised $150,000 a year.
Last week, the agency’s executive secretary announced he is stepping down, effective in mid-October. One seat on the five-member commission is vacant and another expired four months ago.
Before the latest budget cut, Thompson said, he had hoped the commission could audit more campaign and lobbyist reports to ensure compliance with ethics laws. The agency can’t afford that now, so it will continue auditing 10 to 15 percent of reports every year, getting around to everyone once every seven to eight years.
Thompson plans to launch a business that will focus on helping corporate clients comply with disclosure laws. He’s leaving now so the commission can choose a new director before the next legislative session and election cycle.
“If I was to stay here, I’d have to commit to stay a whole other year or year and a half,” he said.
Thompson denies he was pushed out of the job. He said he’d rather not comment on a report this week by Dick Pettys at InsiderAdvantage.com that the budget cuts were meant to pressure the commission to pull back on enforcement:
"But others who profess to have knowledge of the situation say that at a critical point during the last session, Thompson was given a choice of receiving full funding for the agency if he would discontinue the random audits and work to rescind or modify the commission’s airplane reporting policy.
Over the past year, the agency through attrition has lost an investigator, an auditor, two educational trainers and a deputy executive secretary — none of whom will be replaced. Two attorneys, who will conduct their own investigations, and an auditor remain.
Thompson believes educational outreach efforts in recent years and an experienced enforcement staff will allow the commission to continue its efforts without losing a step.
“With the quality of our staff we have right now, I don’t believe our mission is going to be affected much, if at all,” he said. “We’re gonna keep on keeping on.”
The commission, Thompson said, handled the budget cuts with “nontraditional savings” — cutting office space back by 60 percent, canceling maintenance agreements and subscriptions, and stopping purchase of other supplies.
“We don’t even have a postage meter,” he said.
But, he said, the commission’s budget has just about been cut to the bone:
“Any more cuts could be devastating to us.”