Once again, critic tramples truth to attack Georgia’s “F” on ethics
By JIM WALLS
If I didn’t know better, I’d be outraged by the allegedly shameful and irresponsible conduct of the Center for Public Integrity, which was called to my attention Thursday in the pages of the AJC. But I do know better, so please allow me to explain how Rick Thompson ignored CPI’s findings about Georgia’s limp anti-corruption laws while building a straw man that could easily be ripped apart.
Thompson, a consultant and former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, has become the designated debunker of the CPI’s State Integrity Investigation. He’s stepped up because legislators who are critical of the report (for which I did the Georgia reporting) refuse to go on camera to say so. Thompson’s Thursday opinion piece argues that Georgia had been doing so well on CPI’s previous scorecards — finishing 7th in the nation in 2009 — that its new last-place ranking must be wrong.
What Thompson did not say is that CPI’s reports in 2009 and 2012 measured two totally different things.
The earlier survey analyzed the details of financial disclosure requirements for state legislators. I too would rank Georgia’s disclosure law
7th best in 2009 and again in 2012, if that had been the goal of CPI’s new State Integrity Investigation.
But it wasn’t. The Integrity Investigation, released last week, looks at anti-corruption laws and practices in 14 aspects of state government, of which the Legislature is just one. Of 330 questions on the scorecard, just eight assess the disclosure standards that CPI graded in 2009.
I will discuss findings on the 13 other arms of state government in future posts. Let’s focus for now on legislative accountability.
Besides reviewing what disclosure laws require, CPI in 2012 looked at whether they actually work: Do legislators comply, and does anything happen to them if they don’t? I based my Georgia scoring, in part, on well-documented news reports about some lawmakers’ failure to disclose key business interests and real estate, and on others’ failure to even file a disclosure for months after the deadline — if at all.
Thompson also contends that CPI’s Georgia report cited old laws, rules and advisory opinions — not newer ones adopted since 2010 that “increased accountability, reporting requirements and penalties.” He makes that claim three times in the space of four paragraphs.
No examples of this alleged oversight were cited, because there are none. My scorecard, which anyone may peruse at stateintegrity.org, cited Georgia’s newer ethics laws or advisory opinions on more than 40 answers.
I couldn’t cite any newer disclosure rules, though. As Thompson knows better than anyone, legislators took away the ethics commission’s rule-making authority in 2009 over a rule — drafted by his staff — that they didn’t like. Lawmakers have refused to restore it ever since.
(Last week, Thompson erroneously claimed that “automated auditing” had all but eliminated the need for flesh-and-blood auditors at the ethics commission.)
CPI’s finding disappoints some legislators because it contradicts the “spin” about the 2010 ethics law, which was trumpeted as curbing the abuses of power that had just forced House Speaker Glenn Richardson to leave public office. Under that law, though, news reports show:
- The commission can’t collect late fees because the Legislature wouldn’t give it the money to notify violators;
- Millions of dollars in fines for lobbyists’ and politicians’ late disclosures have gone unpaid; and
- High-profile complaints involving House Speaker David Ralston, Gov. Nathan Deal and former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine have gone unresolved for up to two years.
Members of the ethics commission even sought legal advice on what to do if they’re sued because they couldn’t enforce the law.
Thompson’s AJC piece notes, “The past CPI survey results have been utilized as a great resource to assist legislatures on which areas of the laws need to be strengthened.”
The 2012 survey does just that. It shows that a strong law won’t work without someone to enforce it — an agency that can resist political pressure and operate with a reliable funding stream that the Legislature can’t strip away in a fit of pique.
P.S.: Even as I was typing these words last night, literally at the 11th hour on the last day of the session, I got a call that legislators had tried to sneak through a bill to seal some of the commission’s records and delay reporting some violations in exchange for restoring limited rule-making authority. It might have passed, I’m told, but the votes in the House evaporated once an enterprising reporter tweeted the news.
P.P.S.: I declined to write a piece that would have run beside Thompson’s because I thought the AJC’s request — to defend CPI’s findings — wrongheadedly turned a story about weak ethics laws into a story about my credibility. Sleight-of-hand artists have used that sort of misdirection technique for centuries, and I saw no reason to be the volunteer called up on stage to help. But I did feel the need to write this response because some false statements simply cannot be left unchallenged.
It’s quite refreshing to have this much attention devoted to ethics issues. Could we please refocus the discussion now on the laws and their enforcement? That’s the path Georgia must follow if it is to improve its regrettable ranking.