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.
Terry England, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had to close his Winder-based farm supply business in 2012 but still owes the quasi-governmental Georgia Development Authority the better part of $575,000 borrowed to consolidate its debts in 2009. The property was rezoned in February 2013 to allow a church to operate there under a lease-purchase arrangement that will cover payments on the loan.
Thanks to a homestead exemption and conservation use assessment, England has achieved the enviable goal of paying virtually no property taxes on the 11 acres in Barrow County where he resides. His 2012 tax bill was $1.25.
Wayne D. McLocklin, England’s long-time campaign treasurer, was named in 2012 to fill a new Superior Court judgeship in the Piedmont Judicial Circuit. England co-sponsored a bill to create the position, needed because the circuit had one of the heaviest caseloads per judge in the state.
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. 29, 2013 — House Speaker David Ralston today called for banning most lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and, for the first time, requiring legislators to immediately disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions collected just before they convene each year. The speaker also introduced a bill to restore rule-making authority to the state ethics commission.
For a decade, infighting, vitriol and litigation has been business as usual at Georgia’s state ethics commission. Three executive directors have resigned or been fired since 2006. Two other employees collected $405,000 in damages for allegedly wrongful termination. Lawmakers stripped the agency of 40 percent of its funding, its power to make new rules, even its name. Much of this has come to pass, critics say, because the commission answers to the very politicians it’s supposed to regulate and investigate. Legislative leaders set its budget, control its powers and, along with the governor, decide who its five members will be. It’s time, former ethics chief Teddy Lee says, for a truly independent commission. “It’s got to be set up in a way that it can’t be manipulated,” says Lee, “by people who have no desire to be overseen or second-guessed.”
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.
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.
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.