Governor Deal and ethics

Former state ethics commission director Stacey Kalberman, center, hugs friend Terri Cohen after giving testimony April 3 claiming she was dismissed for trying to investigate Gov. Nathan Deal's 2010 campaign. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Former state ethics commission director Stacey Kalberman, center, hugs friend Terri Cohen after giving testimony April 3 claiming she was dismissed for trying to investigate Gov. Nathan Deal's 2010 campaign. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Last week, a Fulton County jury sided with the former director of the state ethics commission when it ruled she was forced from her job for investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign, throwing the troubled commission into deeper turmoil. State officials had argued that Stacey Kalberman’s departure had nothing to do with her wanting to issue subpoenas for records pertaining to Deal’s 2010 campaign. In the wake of that decision, the governor today writes about his plan for overhauling the commission, while Democrats detail their push for a more independent watchdog.

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New commission will ensure fairness

By Nathan Deal

Throughout its troubled history – dating back long before I took this office – confusion, dysfunction and inefficiency have plagued the Campaign Finance and Government Transparency Commission.

The public, understandably, has questioned the legitimacy of rulings by a watchdog agency that’s handpicked by the officials it regulates. More recently, the commission has made plenty of news for personnel issues that have led to court cases, but no news for investigating and acting on complaints that continue to add up.

I appreciate the time and talent given to the commission by its current members, who don’t earn one cent in salary for a tough job that no one seeks. They are public servants with great integrity. Nevertheless, even a strong team with good intent falls short when the system itself is broken, and I do think the system is broken here.

Though there seems to be some confusion on this issue, the Campaign Finance Commission doesn’t answer to the Governor’s Office. It’s an independent body that hires its own staff.

While I can’t do anything about the personnel issues that obviously need resolving, I can propose and fight for reforms to the commission board that will remove even the appearance of conflicts-of-interest.

Next year I’ll ask the General Assembly to pass a reform plan that will expand the number of commissioners, add appointments from the judiciary and assure that no public official’s campaign is investigated by commissioners appointed by his or her branch of government.

My plan calls for expanding the commission from five to 12 members. The executive, legislative and judicial branches would each appoint four members. The 12 members would then make their own appointment, a 13th member who would serve as chair.

Cases originating from one branch of government would be decided by commissioners appointed by the other two branches. For example, if the commission studied a complaint issued against a judge’s campaign, commissioners appointed by the executive and legislative branches would vote on the case. The chairman would serve on each of these ad hoc committees and provide tie-breaking votes where necessary.

It’s imperative we get the commission on its feet and functioning again. It appears the commission hasn’t acted on any cases in many months, even though a backlog of cases exists. Candidates who have broken our campaign finance laws should face quick and appropriate sanctions, and candidates who face frivolous complaints shouldn’t have to wait months or years under a cloud of suspicion before a case is dismissed.

Last year, I worked to pass a law that gives the commission the power to promulgate rules and regulations so that candidates receive clear guidelines on what they should and shouldn’t do. I would like to see the commission exercise those powers. Candidates need clarity to navigate often confusing rules, and the lack of clarity has led to a “gotcha” culture where complaints to the commission have become standard fare on both sides of the aisle for political gamesmanship.

With stronger guidelines and a commission that avoids the appearance of conflicts-of-interest, I believe we can get the system functioning efficiently and effectively. That’s the first step in gaining public trust in the integrity of our political system.

Nathan Deal is governor of Georgia.

A watchdog not controlled by those in power

By Steve Henson

Honesty and transparency in government should be a cornerstone of a democracy. Transparency is what protects us all from corruption. No one or nothing should be excused from this scrutiny. It is what the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had in mind when they framed our government.

In a transparent government, there is no place for sweetheart deals, cronyism, or pay-to-play legislation. There is no place for shady maneuvering in order to protect those in elected office. We are elected to represent the citizens, and no one’s political career or personal or business interests should trump the best representation we can provide to our constituencies.

The past few years have revealed an inadequacy of ethics enforcement in Georgia government. Allegations and findings of misconduct require our immediate attention. There is simply no reason not to have a government process that is open and transparent, unless you have something to hide.

The restoration of the public’s trust and confidence through meaningful ethics reform is imperative to restore and re-energize citizen participation in government. It is imperative to hold together our democracy.

Senate Democrats have renewed our call for an independent state ethics commission after a trial found the secretary general of the ethics commission was unfairly treated when she began investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign fundraising. The jury found that Stacey Kalberman should be paid $700,000, in addition to legal fees.

Three additional cases, with similar sets of facts, will play out this summer. The cost to the taxpayers will likely exceed $2 million — money that could have been used to end the backlog of ethics cases and enhance the funding of the ethics commission.

Governor Deal and the Georgia Legislature must not allow the reality or perception that political and personal interests are placed over those of the citizens of Georgia.

The people of Georgia deserve ethics enforcement that is unbiased and not controlled by the very people it’s investigating. While the governor tries to distance himself from the case, saying this is an internal administration squabble, the truth is the squabble was created by an investigation of his actions. Is it in the best interest of government transparency that the governor appoints three of the five members of the ethics commission and recommends what their annual budget will be each year?

Democrats recognize that politics can never be fully removed from the political process, but we believe there are ways we can make our government more open and more transparent. We can create a more independent ethics commission. We can provide a funding formula so the commission’s budget is not dependent on political maneuvering.

For several years, we have proposed legislation that would legitimize ethics enforcement in Georgia by removing control of the ethics process from those subject to its power. Instead of a commission appointed by legislators or the governor, Democrats have proposed the creation an ethics commission appointed by the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, who would be instructed to strive for diversity on the commission and 180 days to adjudicate claims.

Georgia Democrats have been moving forward on improving ethics for decades by advancing financial disclosures of elected officials and lobbyists; capping the amount of political contributions; and, preventing campaign contributions during the legislative session. We were leaders in the introduction of legislation in the recent fight to limit lobbyist gifts to legislators, and we will continue to fight to make any state agency charged with the responsibility to watch over our activities to be independent and effective.

It is time to restore public trust in governance. The governor should ask for the resignation of the present members of the ethics commission and work with other leaders in the state to appoint new members that will restore public trust. He should support a new proposal that removes his office and the Legislature from the appointment process of this agency. Now is the time to act to improve the state’s government transparency and ethics.

Steve Henson, D-Tucker, is Georgia Senate Minority Leader.

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