If Gov. Nathan Deal is a little sensitive about questions regarding ethics, it may be understandable. The ethical doubts surrounding him are hardly a secret in Georgia politics.
When Deal resigned from Congress in 2010 to run for governor, he left Washington under the cloud of an ethics investigation into misuse of his office and staff for personal financial gain. During the subsequent campaign, those questions were compounded by Deal’s failure to be candid about significant personal debt that he incurred investing in a son-in-law’s bankrupt business, and by the confusing way that Deal and his staff had mixed their personal business with campaign business.
In the end, those issues did not prevent Deal from eking out a narrow win in the GOP primary and then earning a sweeping victory in the general election. But the questions have not gone away.
In fact, subsequent events have not exactly boosted public confidence. After a local television station raised questions about campaign payments to Deal’s daughter, his staff punished the station by using state police to bar its reporters from an important press conference. It was a petty use of power intended purely to intimidate.
Another event occurred in June 2011, as the director and chief investigator for the state ethics commission were preparing to subpoena Deal campaign documents. That investigation ended abruptly when the two staff members were pressured to resign by the commission chairman, a Deal appointee. The commission cited budgetary problems for its decision, but the two staff members have since filed suit claiming that they were wrongly terminated to protect the governor.
Last month, events took yet another interesting turn. In a filing with the ethics commission, Deal charged that a handful of ethics complaints filed against him by George Anderson, a well-known ethics gadfly, had been frivolous and unsubstantiated, and he demanded repayment of his legal costs in defending himself against them.
It’s true that of the hundreds of ethics complaints filed by Anderson over the years, more than a few have been based on raw rumor and worse. But other complaints filed by Anderson have proved embarrassingly correct, including some that others initially shrugged off as silly. Just this summer, in a case filed by Anderson, Deal agreed to pay a $3,350 fine for “technical violations” of campaign disclosure laws.
The motion filed by Deal deals with a set of complaints initiated by Anderson that the commission deemed unsubstantiated. Deal’s attorney, Randy Evans, argues that Anderson ought to bear “at least some accountability” for raising such charges, and a 2010 law gives Deal the right to do so by demanding legal costs.
But Anderson aside, here’s the problem: When someone files an ethics complaint, it can be difficult to know without an official investigation whether it has a basis in fact. By raising the spectre of a significant financial penalty if a complaint is found groundless, the law discourages citizens from using the ethics process. And that’s exactly what it was intended to do. It was enacted by those who wield political power in order to protect those who wield political power, and it’s troubling to see it used against a private citizen of limited means by the most powerful political figure in the state.
The minor annoyance caused by Anderson simply isn’t worth the precedent and example that Deal sets with this decision.
– Jay Bookman