Sure I stole, but I stole for you. – Former Ga. Gov. Gene Talmadge
Things haven’t changed much in the nearly eight decades since Gene Talmadge whipped up an audience declaring that if you steal for the right reason, it is okay.
Rarely in Georgia’s modern history has the notion of “ethics” overlapped with the practice of “government service.” And recent actions by the state of Georgia and the Atlanta Public Schools system, indicate ethical lapses by public officials at all levels of government in the Peach State continue to pose a systemic challenge to those who actually understand that serving the public carries with it a responsibility to act not only lawfully, but ethically as well.
At least two Georgia lawyers — former state Attorney General Mike Bowers and the current occupant of that office, Sam Olens – are fighting what must at times seem a lonely battle to enforce the quaint notion that ethics does play a role in public service. Bowers is leading an outside investigation into the cheating scandal involving the Atlanta school system, and Olens has made transparency in government and respect for the law the hallmarks of his nascent tenure.
At the state level, the most recent example of this cavalier attitude toward ethics can be seen in the manner in which the Governor is treating the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (commonly known as the “ethics commission”). Recently, Stacey Kalberman, executive secretary of the ethics commission, was told her salary would be significantly reduced and her aide would be laid off due to “budget cut backs.” According to press reports, Kalberman explained she could not work for what amounted to a 30 percent salary cut. She was then informed the state ethics board had accepted her resignation.
Cuts to the state ethics commission have not been uncommon. It has absorbed budget cuts of some 40 percent since 2008; more than most other state agencies. But there have been suggestions that an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign finances may have been behind the most recent draconian cuts, including a revelation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had offered to loan a forensic accountant to assist the commission.
The ethics commission now has but one employee; clearly insufficient to hand a single investigation, much less the many into which it ought to be delving – but apparently enough to satisfy those in power, who can continue to claim with a straight face that the state does have “an ethics commission.”
However, for all of the stories and accusations of corruption among state public officials, perhaps no more perfect illustration of the complete and utter lack of ethics in this state can be found than the Atlanta Public Schools (APS).
Accusations have recently been made, with supporting evidence, by a former APS official that outgoing Superintendent Beverly Hall ordered documents relating to the CRCT cheating scandal be destroyed. According to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the official, who was head of the school system’s internal investigation, objected to the order, but “her supervisor said the district had the right to ‘sanitize’ the investigation and that ‘the matter was closed’ because Hall ‘had directed that all other documents be destroyed.’”
The former official also accused APS of editing and removing damaging information in an independent investigation that revealed pervasive cheating inside the school system before it was presented to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, and purposefully withholding information sought in open records requests from media.
Scandals and unethical behavior are not uncommon in politics, and we never will be entirely free from such problems. Now, more than ever, however, accountability, not smoke and mirrors, is needed to restore and cement public confidence in state and local government. While these latest scandals do not appear to be the result of efforts by public officials to steal money for themselves, the public’s trust – and in the case of the APS scandal, the students’ futures – is being stolen. Gene Talmadge must be having a good laugh.
By Bob Barr – The Barr Code