Little back-up found for waste charges leveled at ethics panel
By JIM WALLS
Feb. 21, 2012 — Charges of wasteful spending at the state ethics commission flew last week even though accusers 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.
The criticisms surfaced publicly when Rep. Ed Rynders of Albany jumped on the commission’s spending at a budget hearing Thursday, ticking off a list that included “outlandish pay increases” of up to 59 percent, P-card purchases with no explanation and office renovations. Rynders speculated that management issues, not just a tight budget, had been a part of the agency’s much-publicized difficulties in enforcing disclosure laws for lobbyists and politicians.
“I just can’t help but wonder if we couldn’t fulfill the mission there a little bit better if we managed it more properly,” he observed.
A week earlier, ethics advocacy groups had demanded more funding for the agency, complaining that years of budget cuts had made a joke of its efforts to enforce campaign disclosure laws.
“This agency has basically been crippled and is literally in a crisis of ethics because their budget has been so cut, they are so understaffed and underfunded that they have not been able to do the job that is laid out for them by law,” Common Cause Georgia executive director William Perry said at a Feb. 10 news conference.
Rynders, asked after the hearing for more information on the alleged waste, could not specify any expenditure that was improper.
He said he hadn’t known the 59 percent pay hike went to a critical employee who’d been promoted and asked to perform both his old and new duties. Nor could Rynders challenge any of the smaller raises for commission staffers.
“I can’t argue the merits of any pay increase,” he said. “I just don’t have any information to do that.”
Rynders was reading last week from a list of questioned expenditures provided by the House budget office. Those items, and an explanation for each from Stacey Kalberman, the commission’s former executive director, are as follows:
- Renovations, $ 20,697, “after just relocating in 2008 (at a cost of $151,000).” The commission renovated so Kalberman could have a much smaller office, not a larger or fancier one, and the unused space could be devoted to training and meetings. The five-member commission voted to approve the project.
- Carpet removal, $1,646. Kalberman said the office had 30-year-old carpet on the walls (kinda like Elvis’ rec room, I guess) and the Georgia Building Authority insisted on taking it down as part of the renovation. She says she negotiated the cost so the GBA paid most of it.
- Unidentified P-card purchase – $ 4,965. Kalberman could not identify this expense. “We almost never used the P-cards so I don’t know what he’s talking about it,” she said. Atlanta Unfiltered has submitted an Open Records request for the underlying documents.
- Scanning expenses – $ 19,023. The commission digitized all of its paper filings and closed investigative files to save on storage costs and make the records easily retrievable when requested by the public. “It was the only way that we could get all of those past records in a format where we could find them,” she said.
- Tylenol – $ 25. Bought through the state purchasing plan at the cost negotiated by state procurement officers for Tylenol.
- Solo plastic party cups $23 — The commission bought disposable cups because the office has no sink where staffers could wash coffee mugs or cups for other drinks. Kalberman said she took the cups home every week and washed them in her dishwasher so they could be reused. “Maybe the state should reimburse me for the soap and water at my own home,” she said.
Most of the pay raises, which ranged from 4.6 to 21.5 percent, were granted to employees who’d been promoted or given more responsibilities after budget cuts had reduced the agency’s staff from 22 to 10, Kalberman said. The raises stayed within the commission’s budget, she said, and were approved by the human resources director for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, to which the commission is administratively attached.
Rynders said he got the details on the commission’s spending from House budget analyst Jeremy Dickerson, whom he commended at the hearing for “digging a little deeper” into the agency’s budget.
But Dickerson, too, was short on specifics when contacted about the alleged wasteful spending. Analysts, he said in a telephone interview, hadn’t nailed down any purchases that were clearly improper.
“We were looking at them as being potential” misuses of state money, he said.
The unexplained P-card purchase, for instance, appeared to be a single transaction for $4,965. House budget officials could not provide the date or the vendor because they did not pull the relevant record before the hearing.
“That could have very easily been for a legitimate purpose,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson said his boss, Wigton, gave him the bullet points. Wigton referred a reporter to the ethics commission when pressed for back-up documentation on the questioned spending.
Although Rynders’ comments at the hearing indicated he’d made up his mind about the expenditures, he said later he was just asking questions. If critics contend that budget shortfalls cripple the agency’s operation, he said, “it’s just as fair to say, ‘The funding you are receiving, are you managing it as efficiently as you can?'”
Ultimately, Wigton wrote in an e-mail, “I guess everyone will have to determine the answer to what is reasonable for themselves.”