In January, in an otherwise austere budget, Gov. Sonny Perdue requested $300 million in bonds to fund statewide transportation projects, with most of the money earmarked for projects to ease freight movement.
The biggest priority on the list — and at $121 million, the most expensive — was completion of the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway linking I-95 to the Port of Savannah. Trucking companies have complained for years about the delay caused by traffic jams into and out of the port. Perdue also requested $68 million to dredge the Savannah River to let deep-water vessels access the port.
However, few Georgians knew that in the months just before the governor’s announcement, representatives of his private trucking and grain businesses had been meeting repeatedly with port officials about how to increase the amount of business the Perdue companies do with Georgia ports.
As AJC reporter Dan Chapman documented in a story Sunday, one of those meetings included Perdue himself. According to Perdue’s spokesman, the governor got the same level of attention from port employees in those meetings as any other person seeking to do business with the port.
Somehow, I doubt that.
As one state employee explained in an internal e-mail last summer, Perdue and his employees “are laying the groundwork so that when the Governor leaves office they will be in a position to start up an operation.”
In effect, Perdue publicly pushed the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in state money to improve infrastructure that would be a direct benefit to his private, post-politics business career.
I doubt Perdue saw it that way, of course. But it sure is remarkable how often the public interest — in this case, investments to boost the flow of trucks in and out of Georgia ports — happen to coincide with a politician’s self-interest.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Cobb County Republican, can also tell you a thing or two about that phenomenon.
Ehrhart, acting as a private consultant, accepted a $40,000 fee from a group interested in boosting taxpayer funding of the arts. As Jim Walls reported in Monday’s AJC, Friends of Arts & Culture hired Ehrhart in 2009 for advice on how to advance their cause at the Capitol.
The arts group and Ehrhart insist there was nothing unethical in that arrangement. The legislator was paid for advice, not for his influence, both parties stress. But at the very least, that’s a tough line to police.
It requires you to believe that Ehrhart, who at the time chaired the powerful House Rules Committee, would have felt no obligation to advance a cause that he had been paid $40,000 to help guide.
It would also require you to believe that the Friends group harbored no secret hope that its $40,000 would make Ehrhart a little friendlier to their proposal.
As anybody who knows Ehrhart will testify, increased public funding of the arts is the kind of program that he would ordinarily dismiss with scorn and a scowl.
Ehrhart now serves as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a powerful post that gives him great influence over how the state spends billions of dollars. You have to wonder who else might be paying him substantial fees — purely as a consultant, of course — for advice on winning state funding for their cause.
I mean that literally, of course. You have to wonder, because you have no way of actually knowing. Like other members of the Legislature, Ehrhart is not required to disclose the arts group payment or any similar payment because they are deemed fees paid to him in private business that have nothing to do with his role as legislator.
You see, that makes it legal.
I’ve also been reminded of this Fox 5 report, by Dale Russell, which documents a $100 million DOT project to widen a state highway that just happens to link property owned by Perdue and his trucking company to Interstate 75. The report also documents intense involvement on Perdue’s part in setting the project alignment and its scope.