Georgia General Assembly: Ethics reform takes a front seat

Moderated by Rick Badie

Georgia lawmakers took the first step toward ethics reform when the Senate passed a gift cap as part of the chamber rules on the first day of the General Assembly. The rule bars lobbyists from spending more than $100 on any one senator. The new rule doesn’t apply to the state House; a broader bipartisan ethics reform package is expected from the Legislature this year, something watchdogs like today’s writers promote.

Ban sports tickets as gifts

By Kay Godwin

Lobbyists are hired to influence legislators to support legislation favorable to their clients. Logically, it follows that the lobbyist’s primary tool of persuasion would be facts that prove a proposed bill is in the best interest of a client. If the merit of legislation is of primary concern to a legislator’s decision to either support or to oppose a bill, then the question that should be asked is this:

Why do lobbyists give gifts of sports tickets to legislators, and for what reason(s)?

Proponents of ethics reform are asking this question of our legislators, but are getting answers of little substance that do not validate their acceptance of sports tickets. Opponents believe that an ethics measure is unnecessary, stating that legislators who receive sports tickets from lobbyists are not influenced to vote favorably on the lobbyists’ legislative agenda.

Proponents, however, believe that in the sports arena, a gift comes with hoped-for, if not expected, results; the outcome is implied in the offer and confirmed by the acceptance of the gift. Opponents of ethics reform state the only implied offer a lobbyist expects is to experience the joy of giving a legislator gifts, and that the only expected confirmation of the gift given is the joy the legislator experiences when he/she receives the gift. However, such reasoning is questionable when a lobbyist client provides a substantial budget to a lobbyist that funds gifts such as sports tickets that can cost several hundred dollars per ticket or per day.

Sports tickets are expensive. They fail to assist a legislator in making an informed vote on bills that are of concern to a lobbyist’s client. Under these circumstances, the legislator invokes public scrutiny and public questioning of the legislator’s commitment to ethical conduct.

During the 2012 legislative season, there was little enthusiasm for ethics reform among most legislators. Many lawmakers felt there was no need for a gift ban, citing that gifts from lobbyists in no way influenced their vote on a legislative bill. Supporters of ethics reform were unconvinced by such rhetoric, as evidenced by more than 1 million Georgians who said they would support a cap on gifts from lobbyists to state legislators.

Although the 2012 Georgia Legislature did not introduce ethics reform legislation, it is apparent the 2013 Georgia Legislature would do well to listen to public demand for accountability from elected officials. However, to be effective in reassuring the public of accountability among elected officials, any proposed legislation should serve to avoid even the appearance of unethical behavior among our elected officials.

A ban on sports tickets that, according to legislators, serve no purpose in the legislative process, would be a positive step forward in sending the message to Georgia voters that indeed we do have an ethical and accountable government in which to place our trust.

Kay Godwin is co-founder of  Georgia Conservatives in Action.

Ethics reform: a tricky business

By James  “Randy” Evans

As the 1994 and 2006 Congressional elections proved, ethics can be the basis for the collapse of an established political majority, even one as dominant as today’s Georgia Republican majority. In the 1994 and 2006 elections, ethics (or the lack thereof) undercut the moral authority of majority and led to their political demise.

Georgia has not and does not have such scandals or challenges. While Governors Rod Blagojevich (Illinois, 2009), Elliot Spitzer (New York, 2008), John Rowland (Connecticut, 2004) and Jim McGreevey (New Jersey, 2004) were all forced from office, Georgia’s governors and legislators have served largely scandal free.

While there is no shortage of critics of Georgia’s ethics laws, the best proof of their effectiveness is the virtually complete absence of scandals that have rocked federal and state governments around the nation. (Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for school systems, county governments and judges around Georgia.) In virtually every other situation, the common denominator prompting meaningful ethics reform was indictments, adjudications, guilty pleas and convictions of politicians.

Yet even without a pressing scandal forcing change, the Georgia General Assembly is pressing forward with elevating the ethics bar even more. Notably, this is a good government choice, not an imminent political necessity.

Already, the Georgia Senate has adopted limits and rules that increase the standard for senators. There will be more. House Speaker David Ralston has promised it; Sen. Josh McKoon has pushed it; Gov. Nathan Deal supports it.

Ethics reform is a tricky business. To be effective, ethics rules must leave little room for manipulation by politicians intent on profiting from their position of trust. On the other hand, overly legalistic rules can serve as traps for unwary honest elected officials traveling through partisan minefields closely monitored by political operatives eager to capitalize on any technical “ethical” misstep.

Having participated in drafting and redrafting comprehensive ethics packages from the lowest levels of government to the United States Congress (twice), one thing is clear: Legislated ethics can become little more than a bill with little positive impact on ethics and significant negative consequences on public service. Hyper-technical rules aimed at defining every prohibited behavior are little more than lawyers’ best friends.

There is no more effective tool for assuring honesty and integrity than full disclosure of gifts for every voter (and political opponent) to see. Full transparency eliminates the need for fine distinctions among gift-givers while permitting voters to serve as private inspectors-general holding politicians accountable for gifts.

Elected officials are not the only ones who must be held accountable. Gift-givers must also face consequences. Politicians can face the wrath of voters at the ballot box. Lobbyists must face stiff penalties of a different sort. These can include fines, penalties and, most importantly, privileges.

While gifts are headline-grabbers, conflicts of interest are far more serious. Elected officials participating in decisions in which they have a personal or financial interest present a far greater threat to the electoral process. Georgia already has a direct prohibition against regulated entities donating to those who regulate them. It works.

When conflicts exist, disclosure alone is not enough. Tougher rules are required, with significant penalties to deter violations, and severe penalties to deal with repeat offenders.

Finally, to be effective, there must be a mechanism for enforcing the rules. This means an entity with sufficient resources, authority and jurisdiction to detect, investigate and sanction violations of the rules.

James Randolph “Randy” Evans, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge, specializes in government ethics. A member of the Republican National Committee, he’s advised politicians ranging from Newt Gingrich to Gov. Nathan Deal.

9 comments Add your comment

Fire the icompetent cowards

January 25th, 2013
6:44 am

Are you concerned how legislators can shut down a legal matter with a simple letter to the court? Imagine a legislator representing a mentally ill person such as some of the people that pose a physical threat to society. If requested, these people will never have to go to court for a simple legal fee!!! In light of all of the shootings around this country we need to expose the legal abuse of family/probate court by legislators. We are profiling a case in which a state legislator filed stays for 2 years on 2 probate matters in Union County.,Georgia ( he practices law 7 hrs away?? hmmm). One being a competency hearing in which his client ( that he delayed the hearing for) was found in his driveway in Blairsville this past weekend after his part time wife (long term mistress) left him Saturday morning. The man spent THE NIGHT LAYING IN HIS DRIVEWAY UNTIL HE WAS FOUND THE NEXT DAY. The wife did not contact family for 48 HOURS to let them know what had happened while he lay in th hospital. Neurologists had warned the courts that this could happen yet the courts were rendered powerless by OCGA 9-10-150. We need to abolish OCGA 9-10-150 at the lease when it comes to competency hearings and probate matters involving children. With all of the recent shootings I would think this society be best served with some changes in OCGA 9-10-150 also known as legislative stays. Will be posting all stay letters in regards to this case as well as correspondence from the Decatur office attorney in coming days. Stay tuned. Thanks to everyone including the family members for all of the support. It’s over 125 page so be patient. we are exploring different apps that can post such large documents.

Bob Loblaw

January 24th, 2013
10:54 am

Kay Godwin? A super-conservative, social conservative campaign operative? Being published in the AJC on the subject of lobbyist expenditures? Really? May as well get Bookman to write Mark Bradley’s next column. Terrible. Has no experience whatsoever. If she doesn’t think that a sports ticket gives an opportunity to discuss matters with a legislator, she should talk to the Presidents of the Universities who host them.

Mike Robinson

January 24th, 2013
8:00 am

Why would the Senate allow any amount of bribe money to tarnish their work?

James P. Wesberry, Jr. (ex-Senator, Fulton County 1963-67)

January 24th, 2013
7:24 am

What planet does this statement come from? Not Planet Earth obviously…Another Georgia somewhere else in the universe?

“Georgia’s governors and legislators have served largely scandal free. While there is no shortage of critics of Georgia’s ethics laws, the best proof of their effectiveness is the virtually complete absence of scandals that have rocked federal and state governments around the nation.”

The State Integrity Investigation, a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International to measure the risk of corruption in every US state reporting that the State of Georgia ranks last among the 50 US states. “The report,” says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “scored states on 330 ’corruption risk indicators’ including open records law, campaign finance rules, and auditing and budgeting procedures. Georgia received an overall grade of 49 out of 100, an F.”

Many years ago I naively dreamed that the coming of a two party system to Georgia would help clean uip corruption. Now we have two corrupt parties instead of only one. Corrupt and unethical conduct continues as always.

One who knows...

January 24th, 2013
7:22 am

the lobbyists just have their clients use their own credit cards to pay for dinner, train rides, and golf vacations to the beach – no reporting required!

Just ask the former GOP House member who now works as a “consultant” for big-time law firm TS. If the “consultant” uses his TS credit card, no disclosure. If his lobbyist colleague uses his TS credit card, disclosure is required. They both have the cell phone numbers of the top leadership and call them frequently.

So why even debate ethics? It’s all a farce.

Road Scholar

January 23rd, 2013
5:53 pm

SAWB: Right On! No accountant, lawyer, or advisers needed! Now for the penalty for getting caught violating….I wonder if Jindal would prefer death? NO? But make the penalty painful. And have judges appoint the review committee.

Jesus Christ crushes NWO, DBMs

January 23rd, 2013
5:39 pm

Here is where I stand on this issue. Americans have consented to electronic voting and, as a result, there is no way to determine if institutional voter fraud is taking place. Now when we voted via paper ballots, we had the ability to hold a recount, hanging chads and all.

My point is that if we are naive enough to trust the results of electronic voting, we all should be naive enough to trust politicians when they say gifts have no influence on their vote. It is the lesser of two evils.

Amen?

Aquagirl

January 23rd, 2013
4:59 pm

Georgia’s governors and legislators have served largely scandal free.

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Is anyone surprised this utter tool “advised politicians ranging from Newt Gingrich to Gov. Nathan Deal?’

SAWB

January 23rd, 2013
3:45 pm

So, does Mr. Evans think a $100 limit is difficult to understand and manage? I have an idea on what would make it simpler to understand – a $0 limit on gifts. There do you job and go home if the pay isn’t enough don’t run for office.