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.