State Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton) on Thursday introduced legislation that makes it illegal for the state insurance commissioner to accept campaign contributions from executives of companies regulated by his office.
The bill is in response to months’ of reporting by the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media outlets that current Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has collected more than $2.6 million from employees and owners of insurance and small-businesses that Oxendine regulates.
Scott said state law already prohibits officials from taking money from companies they regulate, but his measure would expand that ban to certain employees of those companies. It was introduced in the House on Thursday and sent to the Governmental Affairs Committee, which Scott chaired until this session. He resigned the chairmanship to focus on his race for governor.
“Yet, the existing law has not proven sufficient to prohibit this type of conduct in some cases, most notably by our current insurance commissioner,” Scott said.
Scott’s interests here are not completely altruistic. He is currently one of six Republicans challenging Oxendine for the GOP’s nomination for governor, a fact that Oxendine believes is driving Scott’s legislation.
“Our government needs comprehensive ethics reform,” Oxendine said in a statement. “That is why I laid out a plan for real reform two weeks ago. Scott’s proposal is nothing more than a political stunt by a desperate candidate. Georgians are tired of political theater and deserve meaningful reform for all elected officials.”
But Scott said revelations by the AJC last year that Oxendine accepted more than $120,000 in contributions by political action committees controlled by Delos “Dee” Yancey III show reforms are needed. Yancey is CEO of State Mutual Insurance Co., based in Rome. The State Ethics Commission is investigating whether the contributions violate state law.
The AJC has also reported that Oxendine has, over the past decade, taken more than $2.6 million from employees and owners of insurance and small-loan businesses that he regulates.
Scott said he understands that some will question his motivation.
“I’m going to tell you the truth and if the truth offends one of my opponents, then that’s because of their conduct, not mine,” Scott said.
Oxendine leads the polls for the GOP nomination. A poll released Thursday by Atlanta-based Insider Advantage has Oxendine at 25 percent and Scott at 3 percent, behind Oxendine, former Secretary of State Karen Handel (10 percent), U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal (9 percent) and former state Sen. Eric Johnson (7 percent).
Scott, a 14-year veteran of the House, last year introduced legislation to create a statewide grand jury to investigate public corruption. Had that bill passed, he said, this one potentially would not be necessary.
His new bill, HB 1166, would target not just the office-holder for taking contributions, but the insurance executive who gives it.
“It will allow those who serve in this constitutional office to focus on the job at hand without regard for how their position might be used as a potential benefit to their political campaigns,” Scott said. “Most importantly, it will help ensure that Georgians have fairer elections going forward.”
But Rick Thompson, the former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, said he believes banning contributions is not the answer. Greater transparency is.
“The money is going to get there no matter what,” Thompson said. “It’s easier for a regulator to make it transparent. If people want to sit on their butt and not pay attention to the political process and elect someone who takes $1 million from Home Depot, then they ought to.”