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.
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.”
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.
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.
Picture a few Georgia legislators in a karaoke bar, swaying back and forth and belting out the Stone’s “Under My Thumb.” Or maybe a little Cee Lo. That should give you a good sense of the message that lawmakers sent last week to the State Campaign Finance Commission. Gov. Nathan Deal has already signed an ethics bill that gives the commission more work and more expenses and rebuffs a bid to restore some of its power.
Legislative leaders are in discussions to hire a prominent lobbying firm to help redraw district lines for the Georgia House and Senate this year. Under the proposal, Troutman Sanders Strategies would work on reapportionment maps for the Legislature and the state’s delegation to Congress. The firm recently hired former House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, and chairman Pete Robinson serves on Gov.-elect Nathan Deal’s transition team.
Legislative leaders sign off on ethics reform with loopholes New questions about how Pat Pope awarded DeKalb school projects
Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam has racked up $22,381 in liens for unpaid federal and state income taxes for eight consecutive years. The state Revenue Department executed the latest lien Jan. 25, shortly after reporting that a House member had not filed a 2008 tax return, but officials aren’t saying whether it’s her. “I don’t have money,” Abdul-Salaam said. “I struggle like most of my constituents, but I never run from my obligations.”