Politicians are criticized a lot these days for looking out for their own well-being rather than that of the people they are elected to represent. That’s particularly true for members of the Georgia General Assembly, which in recent months has suffered repeated blows to its already battered reputation.
Given all that, I think it’s important to note when somebody in politics stands up and does the right thing, especially when doing the right thing comes at a high personal cost.
Take, for example, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen.
Last week, Keen went on record as supporting legislation putting a $100 limit on individual gifts from lobbyists to state legislators. That was mighty nice and ethical of him. It also ought to silence all those cynics out there who claim that our elected leaders aren’t willing to share in the sacrifices that are being demanded of all of us these days. To advance the cause of good government, Keen for one is willing to accept a significant reduction in the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed.
To fully appreciate Keen’s willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the people of Georgia, it helps to know some recent history, as documented in lobbyist disclosure reports.
Those reports tell us that on March 10 of last year, to cite just one example, lobbyist “Skin” Edge treated Keen to a nice little dinner at an unnamed restaurant. The bill for Keen’s meal and drinks?
On Valentine’s Day, lobbyist Delores Gallego of Delta Air Lines supplied Keen with tickets to Cirque du Soleil.
On April 30, Scott Draper of Georgia Power treated Keen to a round of golf at what must have been a very nice course.
On Oct. 1, Ted Lawrence of AT&T had the pleasure of watching Keen enjoy dinner and refreshments at yet another fine dining establishment.
All told, the St. Simons Republican and former state chair of the Christian Coalition accepted more than $7,000 in gifts of $100 or more from lobbyists in 2009.
Yet out of his devotion to public service, Keen has volunteered to surrender all of that.
Well, OK. Maybe not all of it.
Last year, Keen accepted another 55 gifts — mainly dinners and golf rounds — costing lobbyists between $40 and $100. In June, for example, there was the $73.77 dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse in Nashville, courtesy of a Blue Cross/Blue Shield lobbyist. In April, Georgia Power spent $87.13 to buy Keen dinner on the same day it bought him that $230 golf round.
(I don’t know what the occasion might have been. Maybe they were celebrating something — something like, say, their success in passing a controversial bill that allows Georgia Power to start charging its customers for nuclear plants long before the plants are built.
Georgia Power had spent a lot of money pushing that bill, lavishing $8,000 on legislators in the three months before the legislative session even began. After the bill passed, Keen rejected suggestions that legislators had caved to lobbyists.
“I’ve heard the media say there was pressure,” Keen said last February. “I never heard it, saw it, felt it at all.”)
Under ethics reform legislation sponsored by state Rep. Wendell Willard of Sandy Springs, Keen and his colleagues would still be able to accept as many of those sub-$100 gifts as they can fit into their busy social schedules. While House Bill 920 would prohibit elected officials from accepting any single gift worth more than $100, it puts no limit on the number of sub-$100 gifts that can be offered and accepted.
Those smaller gifts add up. Last year, Keen got $5,333 in gifts costing less than $100.
A competing bill, proposed by state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur, would lower that limit to $25. But without public pressure, that bill is considered much less likely to become law.
I guess I can understand that. Having already agreed to surrender those hugely lavish dinners and golf rounds, legislators find the idea of a $25 limit just too tough to swallow.
Certainly, it’s harder to swallow than a 6-ounce tenderloin of Kobe beef, broiled medium rare over an open flame, then covered in shallots simmered in a port wine sauce ($95) and washed down by a bottle of 2005 Grand-Puy-Lacoste ($110), paid for by Georgia Power.
Just to propose a hypothetical example.