If you were under the illusion that ethics reform was basically a “done deal” in the 2013 General Assembly — if you thought that our elected officials finally understand the impropriety of accepting lavish meals, hospitality and other gifts from lobbyists — the new ethics rules approved by the state Senate Monday ought to clarify the situation.
The rules, adopted by a vote of 42-12, look fairly straightforward at first. They state, for example, that “no senator shall accept any gift, other than those specified in subparagraph (3) of this paragraph, with a value in excess of $100 from a registered lobbyist.”
Ahh, but what does that pesky “subparagraph (3)” say?
Among other things, it lists several occasions on which the much-ballyhooed $100 limit doesn’t apply. For example, it doesn’t apply to “expenses for admission, registration, food, beverages, travel, and lodging attributed to participating in events, seminars, or educational programs sponsored by or in conjunction with a civic, charitable, governmental, educational, professional, community, or business organization or institution where attendance is related to the senator’s official duties.”
That’s a lot of words. In more practical terms, the provision means that when state Sen. Jeff Mullis, the new chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, took a lobbyist-paid three-night junket last year to The Shores Spa and Resort in Florida — “the only AAA Four-Diamond luxury beachfront hotel in Daytona Beach” — he would been perfectly within the “tough” new Senate rules, even though the trip cost $938. You see, Mullis was attending the annual convention of the Georgia Industrial Loan Association, which subparagraph (3) makes fine and dandy. (Six other legislators, as well as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, also attended the convention at lobbyist expense.)
The $802 junket taken to Amelia Island Plantation by state Sen. Rick Jeffares, the newly named chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, would also have been allowed under subparagraph (3), because he was attending courtesy of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores. So to for the $1,000 trip to the Grove Park Inn in Ashville, N.C., taken by Sen. Jack Murphy, then chair of the Senate Banking Committee, to attend the Georgia Bankers Association convention.
Theoretically, even House Speaker David Ralston’s infamous $17,000 trip to view Europe’s high-speed rail system might be covered under the generous umbrella of subparagraph (3), since he claimed it was related to his official duties.
Under another part of subparagraph (3), the $100 limit per senator is also abolished for events “made available to all members of the General Assembly, the Senate, or any caucus, committee, or subcommittee of such bodies.” Such events are fairly common practice under the Gold Dome, with lobbyists or industry groups taking entire committees out on the town.
But again, senators don’t need the special exemption offered by subparagraph (3) to attend such mass affairs. They only need that exemption if the lobbyist intent is to spend more than $100 per senator. Under this provision, a lobbyist who takes a single senator out to dinner must abide by the limit; a lobbyist who wants to take an entire subcommittee out to dinner and drinks has no limit on what he spends per legislator.
Again, such events are fairly common. The pinnacle may have come several years ago, when members of the House and Senate transportation committees were invited to a lavish dinner at the Egyptian Ballroom of the Fox Theater. They ate, they drank, they mingled, and they were then treated to a private concert by country star Travis Tritt. Tables at the affair were sold for up to $10,000, but legislators got in free courtesy of Georgians for Better Transportation, a road-construction industry group.
Under subparagraph (3), that too would be well within these “tight” new Senate rules.
It’s important to note that the rules in question do not have the force of state law; they are simply standards that senators have agreed to set for themselves until new laws are passed. However, they do offer a glimpse at how closely those proposed laws will have to be monitored.
– Jay Bookman