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.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d be outraged by the allegedly shameful and irresponsible conduct of the Center for Public Integrity, called to our attention Thursday in the AJC. But I do know better, so please allow me to explain how Rick Thompson’s opinion piece ignored CPI’s findings about Georgia’s limp anti-corruption laws while building a straw man that could easily be ripped apart.
Former state ethics official Rick Thompson says Georgia doesn’t need all the auditors and investigators it once had because auditing of politicians’ financial disclosures is now automated. This would seem to refute some of my recent findings about weak ethics enforcement in Georgia.
Except, of course, that it’s not true.
Georgians can no longer fall back on “Thank god for Alabama!” We trail the pack in a 50-state survey of government accountability laws and practices. Detractors, predictably, complain that bottom-of-the-barrel ranking is unfair and accuse me — the project’s Georgia reporter — of bias. As Sophocles observed 2,450 years ago, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”
Georgia law books are chock-full of statutes written to curtail undue influence on political activity and public policy. So utilities and insurance companies can’t give to a candidate seeking an office that regulates them. Legislators can’t take political donations while in session. Politicians can’t use campaign money for personal benefit. State workers can’t accept gifts from vendors or lobbyists.
Except when they can.
Time and again, Georgia journalists and watchdog groups have found that money finds a way to flow around those laws. These and similar findings underscore what can sometimes be a gaping divide between Georgia’s legal standards for public accountability, on the one hand, and everyday practice. In a new, state-by-state analysis of ethics and accountability practices, Georgia ranks 50th with a grade of F from the State Integrity Investigation.