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Join the Georgia Transparency Project

State legislators say they welcome transparency regarding their personal finances — corporate and real estate holdings, government contracts and the like.

But who decides what constitutes transparency, or how diligently to check whether they’re truly telling us what we’re entitled to know? They do.

Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, transparency is too important to be left to the politicians. That’s where the Georgia Transparency Project comes in.

A little background: Georgia requires everyone seeking elected office to disclose basic financial information when they qualify to run and, if they win, once a year after that. Some appointed officials file similar disclosures. The purpose is to let citizens know where public and private interests might conflict.

You can look up those reports online at the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission’s website. Reports are there for city and county officials starting in 2011 and for state officials back to 2005.

Transparency is an illusion, though, without compliance, and that requires enforcement. Extreme budget cuts have eliminated all but one of the six investigators and auditors who once scrutinized those disclosures. The remaining auditor will handle about 70,000 filings, with a goal of auditing 3,500 or so, in 2011. At that rate, she’d get through this year’s batch by the year 2031.

So, candidates and public officials can reveal as much or as little as they want with minimal chance that regulators will catch on.

The Georgia Transparency Project, working with student journalists and volunteers, will fill that gap. We will audit disclosures of every state legislator, comparing each against other public records — property ownership, business filings, court cases — to determine what those lawmakers have disclosed and what they have not.

But wait — there’s more!

We’ll analyze campaign records to tell you how much money they’ve raised, and from whom. We’ll examine how they’ve spent campaign money and how much they’ve shared with other candidates. We’ll tally up whose lobbyists have spent the most on each legislator. We’ll check tax and court records and oversight agencies’ investigative files.

The Transparency Project will always be a work in progress, continually adding information and insight. New disclosures will be uploaded and analyzed, new court cases reviewed. Whenever possible, hyperlinks will take readers to our source documents. This information will remain available perpetually. Once we’ve covered the Legislature, we can drill into other areas of government — perhaps cities and counties, lobbyists or political action committees.

By giving citizens a one-stop source for accountability information, we believe the project can alter Georgia’s political landscape. Even before publishing the first piece, we’ve had an impact. Lawmakers have filed delinquent disclosures or amended older ones. They’ve caught up on unpaid taxes. They’ve called us a few names.

But there’s much more work ahead of us. That’s where we need your help. We need tips and information, documents and photos. We need people to spread the word about the Transparency Project. We need IT support. We need experts — lawyers, accountants, real estate and other professionals — who can lend their knowledge. We need more volunteers to research and compile records; let us know if you can spend a little time reviewing records in your local courthouse or city hall or compiling campaign contributions or lobbyist spending.

Most critically, we need your financial support. We have expenses for travel and lodging, cellphones, computer support, record acquisition. Some government agencies have asked for hundreds of dollars just to provide routine information on payments to legislators’ businesses.

In particular, we need to work on this full-time. If you bemoan the impact of shrinking newsrooms and their shrinking budgets for investigative journalism, this is your chance to do something about it. It’s up to you.

What value do you place on true government transparency? What do you pay for other reliable news sources? Think about that, then please click on one of the Paypal buttons plastered all over this site to donate, or send us a check. If you planned to donate to a political candidate in the coming year, think about giving us a little to help keep the politicians honest.

Donors at the bronze ($100), silver ($250) or gold ($500) levels can get their names in lights — or pixels, anyway — on our Roster of Great Americans. You may also keep your donation anonymous.

Regardless of the method or the amount, please consider giving to the Transparency Project. Help us make this research available to all Georgians in 2012.


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