There’s the right way to do these things. And then there’s Tim Echols’ way.
Echols is a member of the state Public Service Commission, charged with regulating the state’s energy utilities, telecom companies and trucking and limousine services. As Kristi Swartz reports in today’s AJC, Echols wrote a letter back in March to Augusta National Golf Club, using official PSC stationery, requesting two tickets to a practice round of the Masters.
“As a statewide elected official, I would welcome the opportunity to visit with constituents and guests in our state,” Echols wrote.
Getting no response to his first letter, Echols stepped up the heat. He wrote another letter, demanding access to the grounds to allow him to inspect limousines being used to service members, players and guests at the tournament, so that he could ensure that they were properly licensed by the PSC.
He still didn’t get in.
If you’re wondering how Echols came up with such a cockamamie approach, I may be able to help you out. You see, before filing to run for the PSC last year, Echols served as campaign manager for then-Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine in his failed run for governor. And Oxendine was renowned for his less-than-subtle use of public office as leverage to get what he wanted.
As Swartz reported in late July, the newly elected Echols has also run up twice as much in expense reimbursements as any other PSC commissioner, spending more than $12,000 on trips that have often been a dubious mix of personal and public business.
“Since he took office in January, Echols’ billings for mileage, hotels and meals have included $1,231.42 for a trip to Savannah to showcase his personal compressed natural gas-fueled car in a St. Patrick’s Day parade; $337.62 to Albany for nuclear waste meetings, which coincided with his daughter’s track meet there; and $79.05 in mileage from his Winterville home to the Woodruff Arts Center because he wore a gold PSC name badge and represented the agency.
There have been additional trips to Brunswick, St. Simons and Ossabaw islands, some of them including members of his family….
That said, Echols has lined up a 10-day trip to France next year to tour some of the country’s 52 nuclear plants and learn how that industry handles spent fuel. He will pay for the trip out of campaign funds rather than expense it.”
Echols defends his blunt approach to the Masters by explaining that he didn’t want to acquire tickets through lobbyists, which might make him beholden to them. That makes a certain strange kind of sense. Indeed, if you look through disclosure forms, you discover that so far this year, Echols has accepted just two meals, worth a total of $66.75, from lobbyists.
On the other hand, Echols’ colleague at the PSC, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, did wrangle a ticket to a Masters practice round, courtesy of an AT&T lobbyist. So far this year, McDonald has also accepted $1,999.67 in lodging, meals and other goodies from SCANA, a gas marketing company that he was elected to regulate on behalf of the people of Georgia.
SCANA has been even more hospitable to another commissioner, Doug Everett, for whom it has purchased $2,169.96 in lodging, meals and other benefits so far this year.
A third PSC colleague, Stan Wise, isn’t listed as attending the Masters this year but did accept three rounds of golf, for a total of $435, from David Christopher Weaver, a lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light Co., which the PSC regulates. So far this year, the AGL lobbyist has showered Wise with $1,237.65 in golf, meals and other benefits.
(The fifth PSC member, Chuck Eaton, hasn’t accepted — or perhaps been offered — largesse on that scale.)
And of course, PSC commissioners are hardly alone. Another lobbyist reports spending $990 on tickets, food and lodging to take state Sen. Renee Unterman and her spouse to the Masters, courtesy of Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover, an Atlanta law firm. Two other state legislators are also listed as accepting Masters tickets from lobbyists.
Other entries in the disclosure data base are a little more opaque. One lobbyist reports spending $668 to take two state representatives to an unnamed “golf tournament” on April 7. That happened to be the starting date of the 2011 Masters, which ran April 7-10. Another reported spending $50 to buy “ticket to golf tournament” for House Speaker David Ralston on April 10. (If anybody else knows how to snag a ticket to the final round at Augusta for $50, please let me in on the deal.)
The point is, there’s clearly a “right” way to get your back scratched. If you stay within approved channels, under Georgia law you can legally accept thousands of dollars worth of benefits, even from companies you’re supposed to be regulating. In the words of the Wicked Witch of the West, “these things must be done delicately.”
It’s an approach Echols has yet to master, so to speak.
– Jay Bookman