2011: A brave new world of ethics enforcement
By JIM WALLS
The State Ethics Commission is dead. Long live the ethics commission.
After 24 years, the state agency that handles candidates’ and lobbyists’ financial disclosures has been renamed the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, ostensibly to better describe its duties and jurisdiction. (Lawmakers may also have intended the new moniker as a reminder that “ethics” is not explicitly part of the agency’s job description.)
That’s just one of many changes effective today under Georgia’s new ethics law, enacted in 2010 to try to clear the air after the resignation of former House Speaker Glenn Richardson, whose dalliances with a lobbyist made headlines.
The law will require more reporting by lobbyists and will probably thin out their herd, at least at the state level. It will relieve hundreds of the new governor’s appointees of the need to disclose even a smidgen about their personal finances. And, combined with budget problems, it will require the commission for the next several months to set aside one of its core missions.
“When your waist is expanding and you don’t have money for new pants, that’s kinda where we are right now,” said Camilla attorney Patrick Millsaps, the commission’s chairman.
Here’s the rundown:
— Lobbyists now must report twice a month, rather than once, on wining-and-dining expenditures during the legislative session. The reports must be filed on the first and 15th of each month. Hefty fees — up to $10,000 — apply for missing those deadlines.
Fewer registered lobbyists — perhaps 1,000, compared to 1,700 last year — will roam Capitol corridors this session. Officials expect many will choose to pack it in rather than pay a new $300 annual registration fee.
But an unknown number of newly registered lobbyists will spring up at the local level. The new law expands the definition of lobbyists, which was basically anyone paid to influence legislation or the choice of vendors, to include those trying to sell stuff to local governments or school boards. Until now, state law exempted them from registering.
— State department heads and appointed members of boards and commissions no longer have to disclose their business and property holdings. Lawmakers said highly qualified people were unwilling to serve because of the mandatory disclosures.
The lone exception, by virtue of the size of their agency, will be the Department of Transportation’s board members and commissioner. Other agencies of comparable size — the University System, for one — will be exempt from disclosures, though.
— Candidates in city and county elections now must file reports on their campaign and personal finances with the Commission-Formerly-Known-as-Ethics, rather than with local election officials. Open-government advocates had pushed this change for years as a step toward transparency. Under the old rules, only candidates for state office had to file with the state.
But there will be a learning curve for both the commission and the candidates, who must file disclosures online but may not have internet access.
“Right now the biggest challenge is the technology,” Millsaps said. “We‘ve got county commissioners in my county that don’t have e-mail addresses, and I have heard [complaints] about it.”
The commission expects 68,000 such filings this year. Officials worry that their online system may crash or malfunction when thousands of candidates try to file at the same time.
The commission has had “all hands on deck” to handle the new filings, Millsaps said. Staffers feel they’re as well-prepared as they could be, but there’s a tradeoff.
“What hasn’t been going on has been any further investigation into complaints … because we just simply don’t have the manpower to do both,” he said.
The chairman estimated it could be six months before investigating complaints that allege violations of the law, but agency director Stacey Kalberman hopes it will come sooner. Her goal is to wrap up all but the stickiest complaints from 2010 by the end of this year.
Those remaining complaints, though, could well be very sticky, including allegations of $120,000 in illegal contributions to John Oxendine’s campaign; charges of campaign hanky-panky by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle; and allegedly excessive spending by the Georgia Democratic party.
Oh, and at least three complaints of campaign finance and disclosure irregularities against Georgia’s new governor.