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.
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. 7, 2013 — In response to activists’ complaints about possible infringement of free speech, a House panel voted today to relax proposed registration requirements for lobbyists and to reduce their annual fee from $300 to $25.
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.
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.
The funds used to fly House Speaker David Ralston’s family to Europe last Thanksgiving were not taxpayers’ dollars — but, quite possibly, they used to be. Chris Brady, the lobbyist who paid for the $17,279 trip, is also a Georgia DOT subcontractor whose firm has pocketed at least $458,000 since 2007 as part of a team studying a possible high-speed Atlanta-to-Chattanooga transit line.
Rep. Ralston, who championed a 2010 law that he touted as ethics reform, accepted a $17,279 lobbyist-funded trip to Europe later that year for himself, his chief of staff and their families. Ralston has had recurring tax difficulties, facing state and federal tax liens of more than $500,000, and he’s needed a little help paying off those debts.
The State Campaign Finance Commission has changed its mind and wants to hire a staff attorney after all, four months after firing its last one. The difference is, this one won’t make more than $55,000 a year and won’t be named Sherilyn Streicker, whose job was eliminated by the commission in June.
Attorney General Sam Olens – who’s taking on a larger role in investigations of public officials, political action committees and lobbyists — has raised more than a third of his campaign money from public officials, PACs, lobbyists and their clients. Donors include parties in high-profile inquiries into possible misuse of campaign funds or receipt of improper contributions.“There is always a potential for a conflict,” acknowledged Josh Belinfante, vice chairman of the campaign finance commission, “but I don’t think … that means a conflict exists.”
House Speaker David Ralston, for the first time in five years, has disclosed his wife’s ownership of an undeveloped 10-acre tract in Dawson County. The speaker, who last week added the property to his financial disclosures, said he’d simply forgotten. What he still hasn’t reported is the more than $1 million he’s borrowed, using collateral that’s valued at less than half that much.