Oct. 22, 2013 — State Auditor Greg Griffin, rather than the attorney general’s office, will try to sort out charges that a 2012 ethics investigation of Gov. Nathan Deal was compromised. Griffin agreed to investigate allegations that the director of the state ethics commission, after talks with key staffers in Deal’s office, ordered the case closed with a minimal penalty. The commission, which announced Griffin’s role late today, had voted last month to ask Attorney General Sam Olens to name a special assistant to review its handling of the case.
Olens, as it happened, had been mentioned
as one possible factor in Deal’s resolve to settle the case in 2012 rather than let it reach a public hearing. A commission attorney has testified she was told that the governor didn’t want Olens, a potential rival in the 2014 governor’s race, to play any role in the proceedings.
Oct. 8, 2013 — Georgia lawmakers touted their 2013 ethics bill as historic, noting that they’d restored rule-making authority to the Campaign Finance Commission. Now, though, House Speaker David Ralston’s lawyer, Doug Chalmers, contends the commission can’t enforce a key disclosure rule on campaign spending. That interpretation, if it prevails, could muzzle the watchdog charged with policing campaign finance and disclosure in Georgia. Politicians could obscure details of countless dollars in campaign spending simply by using a personal credit card and getting reimbursed with campaign funds.
Sept. 19, 2013 — Gov. Nathan Deal’s office recruited a new director for the state ethics commission just as it was ramping up a high-profile probe of his 2010 campaign, Atlanta Unfiltered has learned. A year later, the new ethics chief is alleged to have closed the investigation with a minimal penalty on orders from the governor’s office. The new, behind-the-scenes accounts of the Deal probe, emerging in two whistleblower cases, resurrect concerns about the independence of the state’s ethics enforcers and the integrity of its investigations. They also contradict denials that Deal had any role in the shake-up that cost the state’s top two ethics enforcers their jobs.
Sept. 11, 2013 — Former Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers took back control of a Cartersville radio station last year, apparently without notifying the Federal Communications Commission or his employer, Georgia Public Broadcasting. The station, tiny WYXC-AM, is at the center of an ongoing drama that’s spilled over into the courts and lit up Cartersville message boards. The current operators filed suit last month, alleging their partner had surreptitiously bought the station and kicked them out. They soon turned the tables by obtaining a court order restoring their access and denying his.
July 19, 2013 — A political committee run by close associates of Gov. Nathan Deal has pocketed at least $327,500 since 2012 without reporting it, apparently skirting disclosure rules and the federal tax code.
Major benefactors of the committee, Real PAC, include health-care interests seeking tens of millions — even billions — of dollars in business with state government. One donor, WellCare of Georgia, gave Real PAC $50,000 on the same day that state Medicaid officials said they planned to extend WellCare’s $1 billion-a-year contract for two years.
May 14, 2013 — Gov. Nathan Deal last week unexpectedly vetoed a bill that would have given $9 million in sales tax breaks to charitable medical clinics, federally qualified health centers, food banks and other charities. The measure, which breezed through the House and Senate, would have benefited many safety-net providers that expect to carry an extra patient load once the federal Affordable Care Act begins phasing out hospital subsidies for indigent care next year.
Deal’s veto message noted that a 2010 tax reform panel recommended that all non-government and non-business exemptions be allowed to expire so the Legislature could decide whether they should be renewed. He did not apply that principle, however, when he signed a bill last month extending an estimated $18 million tax break to Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., a Savannah-based manufacturer of luxury jets.
March 22, 2013 — Under the ethics bill and $100 gift cap that Georgia senators will debate today, lawmakers could continue accepting tens of thousands of dollars a year in travel expenses from corporate interests. Not only would the bill let them keep traveling to posh resorts on special interests’ tab, you often won’t even know about it. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council makes these jaunts possible. Big business and trade associations give the money to “scholarship funds” controlled by ALEC, which doles the cash out to legislators attending ALEC events.
Feb. 19, 2013 — A previously unnoticed loophole could allow Georgia politicians to reimburse themselves thousands of dollars from campaign funds without explaining how they spent the money. A key legislator shepherding House Speaker David Ralston’s ethics bills says the problem will be fixed. Details of the proposed solution, however, were not immediately clear. Without a fix, candidates could use political contributions any way they wanted by simply buying something with personal funds and getting their campaign accounts to pay them back.
Feb. 8, 2013 — Another consequence, perhaps unintended, lurks in an ethics bill moving through the Legislature. Enforcement of some aspects of campaign finance law, under a bill sponsored by House Speaker David Ralston, would shift to city clerks and county election superintendents. They would be expected to collect late fees from local candidates, recall committees and the like — a task now assigned to the state ethics commission. The question is: How diligently will local election officials rat out incumbents who are, in many cases, their bosses?
Feb. 5, 2013 — How soon they forget. Georgia tried once before to charge hundreds of dollars for citizens to lobby state legislators, and a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional. In 1995, U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob held that a $200 fee for union members violated their rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.
Jan. 31, 2013 — Two years ago, legislative leaders squawked mightily at the notion that Georgians might have to register as lobbyists when they visit the Capitol. Today, some of those same leaders may embrace the very same position — and more — that they once deplored. A House subcommittee will consider Speaker David Ralston’s 2013 ethics package, which would make people pay $320 in lobbyist registration fees if they want to talk policy with legislators on behalf of any organization, whether it’s Georgia Power Co., the Tea Party or the Girl Scouts.
UPDATE: House members made it abundantly clear before today’s hearing that there’s no way that the final language of the ethics bill will abridge anyone’s First Amendment rights. No details yet, but it seems likely that the revised bill will try to exempt the average citizen who visits the Capitol only occasionally.
I am not making this up. The House Ethics Committee’s chairman says a privately commissioned study shows Georgia’s ethics laws are the third-best in the country, not the worst. This study will form the basis of an ethics bill that Joe Wilkinson says he’ll introduce soon. But he will not make the study public, won’t say who conducted it or how much it cost. “It’s mine,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a working document.”