Delta perks expose Georgia lawmakers’ weak ethics

The problem with Georgia’s ethics laws isn’t that they could and should be stricter, although that’s true. No, the real problem is that too many lawmakers act as if the law is the only word on what is and isn’t ethical.

Witness the upgraded frequent flier status, worth thousands of dollars, that eight legislative leaders accepted last year from Delta Air Lines. (While all are Republicans, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, also got the perk.)

These gifts of platinum or gold Delta Medallion status, reported in March by the AJC and revisited this week by Richard Belcher of Channel 2 Action News, were made under the guise of “campaign contributions.”

Just how the gifts contributed to anyone’s election campaign is unclear. Medallion status allows for an upgrade to first class, not free travel.

And there’s the tiny detail that not one of Georgia’s 236 legislators represents a district with more than one airport served by Delta. Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams can’t fly Delta between Hazlehurst and Ludowici, and the company offers no route allowing Speaker David Ralston to cover the 15 miles between Blue Ridge and Ellijay by air.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who’s elected statewide, is the only exception to that geographic limitation. But his 2010 campaign didn’t report any purchases of Delta tickets.

The upgrades are properly understood as gifts — lobbying gifts — from a company seeking an extension of the partial exemption on sales tax for jet fuel it’s enjoyed since 2005. Delta got just that when HB 322 was passed this spring, saving the company tens of millions of dollars.

No wonder it passed: Besides Ralston, Delta contributed to Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal and House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, who sponsored HB 322. On the Senate side, it wasn’t only Cagle and Williams but Majority Leader Chip Rogers and Ronnie Chance, a floor leader for the Deal administration.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Mullis also received the perk, but Delta did report that one as a lobbying expense.

The jet fuel exemption is debatable, at best, as public policy. Proponents say it’s necessary to protect jobs.

I consider it an unfair corporate giveaway: Delta’s the only airline that qualifies for it, under the law’s tailor-made requirements. It’s also contrary, and counterproductive, to the stated Republican goal of tax reform that eliminates loopholes and exemptions in exchange for lower rates.

Either way, it is outrageous for elected officials to accept an expensive perk from a company seeking favorable treatment from them.

For some reason, this story got my goat more than the typical campaign-money revelation. Maybe it’s the obviously false pretext that these gifts were election-related.

More likely, it’s the reinforcement that our elected officials believe they deserve a cushier lifestyle than their constituents. Not because they can afford it, but just because they’ve been elected.

As Bob Irvin, former House minority leader and past chairman of Common Cause Georgia, told me, “This just ought to be stopped. It feeds the entitlement mentality of people in government. And while we’re fixing the entitlement problems for the country as a whole, we ought to be fixing it for government officials and staff, too.”

The Delta gifts don’t appear to be illegal under state ethics laws. It’s almost certainly not the first time a Georgia politician found himself flying first-class because of his office. And Delta definitely is not the only company that dangles perks in front of legislators.

But there is no obligation to say “yes.” And it really isn’t that hard to say “no.”

Even if that’s not spelled out in the law.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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41 comments Add your comment

carlosgvv

May 18th, 2011
7:22 pm

Delta gives gifts to the politicians in exchange for tax breaks and other perks. As far as it being an “unfair corporate giveaway”, since when have corporations ever played fair? Business is business, money talks and BS walks. We have the best State Legislature money can buy.

Lee Weber

May 18th, 2011
7:33 pm

You can’t even dress this one up as economic development. The tax payers have already given Delta one of the finest airports on the planet and now this? If Delta doesn’t get the break, what are they going to do, move to Birmingham? The only reason not one of these legislators turned this perk down is they thought they wouldn’t get caught…it’s ain’t a straight bribe, but it’s damn close.

Southern Comfort

May 18th, 2011
7:48 pm

Government will not return to “of the people, by the people, and for the people” until the “non-people” are completely stopped from contributing to campaigns. Even if it’s $100, there’s the appearance of “quid pro quo” with the citizens getting the shaft.

Wondering?

May 18th, 2011
8:36 pm

Since the taxpayers are paying for Delta’s tax break, will we all receive our own medallion? It’s only fair–along with one buddy pass!

Dabir Dalton

May 18th, 2011
8:48 pm

Why so surprised Kyle? When one knowingly votes dishonest individuals into political office then dishonesty is what one gets.

ATLOffroad

May 18th, 2011
8:57 pm

I believe Delta has the right to upgrade any passenger on board their flights.

@Lee Weber: One of the finest airports on the planet? Wow, you haven’t traveled much. Hartsfield is has unfriendly staff, it is small for the amount of people whom travel through, and inefficient to connect with other flights. We should look at Sydney, Hong Kong, or Seoul for inspiration for great airport designs.

Bart Abel

May 18th, 2011
8:58 pm

Great piece from Kyle. Laws are function of ethics, not the other way around. Lawmakers and citizens alike need to understand that.

Curious

May 18th, 2011
9:28 pm

Anyone remember learning about the French Revolution? At some point the disenfranchised and downtrodden will rise up. Marie Antionette and the “upper class” thought it was a simple matter of letting them “eat cake”.
Another article today in the AJC talks about the spending gap between rich and not so rich and Kyle’s article is about the well connected receiving perks for favors. This country wasn’t created to have a ruling class at the expense of the majority.
No, I’m not a communist, but a retired Army officer currently working for our Government in Afghanistan.

retiredds

May 18th, 2011
10:11 pm

Kyle, I have written this before, when the Republicans took over the GA governorship and legislature they promised that things would change and that the old way of doing business at the capitol would be history. Looks like they lied.

slim tire

May 18th, 2011
10:27 pm

same as it ever was-yet repubs lather in handouts while they blame the poor for the vittles thrown their way in the form of food stamps and medicaid. tough call, 1st class welfare vs. feeding the poor. the bible says the rich suffer at the hands of the poor. puck on on the bourgeoisie.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

May 18th, 2011
11:20 pm

Kyle, while I agree with you that there should definitely be stronger ethics laws in Georgia, I also can’t fault the so-called “lawmakers” (and I use the term “lawmakers” LIGHTLY) for trying to get all that they can while the gettin’ is good while they can get it. Definitely can’t fault Delta for giving the gifts for a partial exemption on fuel that is saving them tens-of-millions of dollars annually.

Though one must also keep in mind that, in the bigger picture, Delta isn’t just giving away perks and gifts in return for getting a few legislative during the course of one legislative session. Delta is also giving these perks and gifts to powerful high-profile legislators and politicians as a pre-emptive strike because of the looming takeover of the Atlanta Airport and Georgia establishment by a newly-merged and enlarged Southwest Airlines as the introduction of Southwest Airlines into the Atlanta market is Delta Airlines’ worst nightmare come true.

Southwest had been trying to get into Atlanta for close to 25 years and Delta had successfully rebuffed SWA expansion into Hartsfield by cultivating very close “relationships” with state, city and airport political leaders. For many years Delta and Atlanta Airport management have almost been as one as Delta had almost complete say and control over what went on at the Atlanta Airport. Eastern Airlines’ bankruptcy two decades ago effectively left Delta as the single most powerful airline at the ATL Airport and Delta took full advantage by often doing what it could when it could to undermine any other potential competitor as it often did to AirTran and by working with ATL Airport officials to keep Southwest out of Hartsfield and the Atlanta market when SWA tried to enter ATL the first time in 1989.

Delta’s showering of prominent Georgia lawmakers with gifts is a much-needed survival tactic to make sure that they aren’t completely forgotten when Southwest takes over the town and gives out even higher-priced gifts and perks.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

May 18th, 2011
11:33 pm

retiredds

May 18th, 2011
10:11 pm
“Kyle, I have written this before, when the Republicans took over the GA governorship and legislature they promised that things would change and that the old way of doing business at the capitol would be history. Looks like they lied.”

Hahahaha, I thought that that was laughable when they said it, especially considering that alot of those Republicans are former Democrats who changed parties because they saw that the political winds were a changin’. Use to be that every aspiring or up-and-coming politician in Georgia became a Democrat because that’s where all the money and power was. Now everybody that wants to get into politics in Georgia becomes a Republican because that’s where all of the money and power have shifted to in the last 15-20 years. Even black politicians, like that black couple in Gainesville did a few months ago, are shifting to the Republican party. When black politicians are choosing the R’s over the D’s, that is quite a statement.

Linda Borchers

May 19th, 2011
5:21 am

Think of all the people who patiently earn points all year to qualify for one of Delta’s premium levels–this is a direct insult to them. This really makes me lose all confidance in these elected officials,and also wonder about the management of Delta. Not a pretty picture.

Vietvet

May 19th, 2011
6:04 am

Until white Georgians vote their economic interests corruption will reign in Georgia, and the same is true for blacks in Atlanta. Racial prejudice blinds voters and sets up politicians to pick our pockets.

Road Scholar

May 19th, 2011
6:18 am

Why don’t they just return it?Show that there is no appearance of impropriety?

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

May 19th, 2011
6:32 am

Linda Borchers @ 5:21 am, Vietvet @ 6:04 am-

Neither Delta nor these elected officials care one iota what the voting public and media think about their openly corrupt behavior. Many of these legislators are nothing more than country lawyers who didn’t have enough talent to get elected to the federal level and only got elected to state-level government office so that they could get have the opportunity to get showered with gifts like free dinners, tickets to sporting events, all expense-paid nights out on the town with their favorite escorts and, of course, free airline tickets and overseas trips. It doesn’t matter whether their is an (R), (D) or (I) before the name, the motivation is still the same: money, power and “perks”.

Brannon

May 19th, 2011
6:38 am

EXCELLENT column! I can’t believe the crap our domestic airlines get away with. Open up domestic service to foreign carriers, and see how long Delta, American and others survive!

Gerald West

May 19th, 2011
6:50 am

Campaign contributions are legalized bribes. Solicitations for campaign contributions are legalized extortions. Candidates for public office should receive contributions only from registered voters in the district in which they seek election. Elected officials should not receive contributions or favors from any source whatsoever.

Now, there’s real political ethics! Anything less is just a political game.

Karl Marx

May 19th, 2011
7:45 am

“Either way, it is outrageous for elected officials to accept an expensive perk from a company seeking favorable treatment from them.”

Well well, It happens all the time. If you really want to do something vote the Bozo’s out of office after ONE term. Now I think I’ll spend Thanksgiving in Germany this year, I hear their Mass transit system is one on the most “Studied” in the world.

another view

May 19th, 2011
7:55 am

Thought I was going to get to tease you about supporting a “Democrat” issue, but someone pointed out (I presume correctly) that many of these Republicans (not to be confused with conservative) are switchers. Graft is simply the purview of the crooked. As someone else noted, you get what you elect. Problem is, how do we find honesty to elect? Perhaps most of us don’t care.
All I ask, Kyle, is that you be (1) honest and (2) conservative (not to be confused with Republican). Nice job today, sir.

clanmack

May 19th, 2011
7:59 am

@Gerald West-Yes, the TRUTH, as always, simple, direct and easily understood. And term limits to keep them focused on what’s best for the citizens/voters.

brad

May 19th, 2011
8:17 am

Another view: why can’t you leave it at “honest”?

jconservative

May 19th, 2011
8:39 am

No sense of personal honor and integrity.

Wow!

May 19th, 2011
9:03 am

Kyle,

Your column this morning is an excellent piece of journalism. This is what the media is supposed to do. Call government officials to the floor on their shady behavior, regardless of party. Thanks for turning focusing the spotlight on this, Kyle.

brad

May 19th, 2011
9:14 am

Wow!:

With all due respect to Kyle, James Salzer (AJC) and Richard Belcher (WSB) are responsible for this piece of journalism.

fair and imbalanced

May 19th, 2011
9:35 am

Finally an objective, non partisan article. Gotta love politicians.

[...] Kyle Wingfield of the AJC is fired up about Georgia politicians accepting free perks from Delta and he’s right to be disappointed. Can you imagine if Delta were the defendant in a trial and gave the judge free frequent flyer miles during pre-trial hearings? That would be absurd. So what is the difference? From the article: The upgrades are properly understood as gifts — lobbying gifts — from a company seeking an extension of the partial exemption on sales tax for jet fuel it’s enjoyed since 2005. Delta got just that when HB 322 was passed this spring, saving the company tens of millions of dollars. [...]

Gator Joe

May 19th, 2011
9:51 am

Kyle,
While I don’t support the tax breaks for Delta, or any private company for that matter, you need to start at the top of the list before complaining about Delta. Most of your party, (and to lesser degree some misguided members of mine) give away billions to Big Oil, defense contractors, and others who take far more than they give back. Delta, at least provides jobs here, which in turn benefit the local community. Your party has re-written the book on sidestepping ethics and campaign laws.

Joe Mama

May 19th, 2011
9:58 am

Mr. Wingfield, while it may be true that Medallion status, in and of itself, will not grant the holder any free travel, it *will* permit them to accrue Delta SkyMiles faster. And those *can* be redeemed for free travel.

It’s also worth observing that free upgrades to First or Business Class seating aren’t exactly free; there’s a value difference in sitting in Coach and sitting in First or Biz. The next time you talk to a Delta ticket agent, ask what the cost would be to sit at the front of the bus instead of the back.

John

May 19th, 2011
10:00 am

Kyle,

Why are you so surprised by this? We see this all the time. Just this week the Democrats in the US Senate brought up a bill to repeal the oil subsidies to the most profitable corporations in the history of the planet, which give large contributions to Republicans. Not a single Republican voted for the bill. And what’s the excuse, I mean reason, they gave for voting against the bill…it would cause jobs to be lost and gas prices to rise. Under testimony in 2005 under the Bush administration, the CEOs of the oil companies said when oil was at $55 a barrel, the subsidies were no longer needed and repealing it would not have a negative impact on exploration and gas prices. Now in 2011, when oil prices are around $100 a barrel, the CEOs have changed their position.

Of course, Republicans keep saying if you take away the corporate giveaways and tax breaks jobs are going to be lost. But as we see, they give to the corporations and receive personal gains in the process.

pn

May 19th, 2011
10:56 am

Good for you Kyle. This type of piece gives hope that there are still honest conservatives in the media willing to take on the powers that be, and take principled stands. Legalized bribery is certainly not a conservative value, and when it becomes the norm for the conduct of government, we are headed towards societal breakdown. We will become no different than a banana republic, where insiders get all the power and perks, and the populace gets plundered.

Hillbilly Deluxe

May 19th, 2011
11:07 am

The Delta gifts don’t appear to be illegal under state ethics laws.

It doesn’t appear as if much of anything is illegal under state ethics laws. Been that way all my life though, I don’t expect to live to see it change.

Say what?

May 19th, 2011
12:06 pm

Why do we continue the silly ruse that our elected officials work for the common man… they DO NOT. They are beholden to those who line their pockets with perks and cash like Delta. Perhaps if we quit giving these slimy politicians jobs for life, this would happen less often.

BULLSEYE

May 19th, 2011
12:21 pm

Now I know why the Crown Room is always packed with liquor swilling law makers.

wampum

May 19th, 2011
12:59 pm

Kudos, Kyle, you and Jay have both written blogs that have drawn bi-partisan approval. Maybe we all have much more in common than those that divide in order to conquer allow us to believe.

captguitarman

May 19th, 2011
2:30 pm

Great article, Kyle. We need a steady drumbeat of this kind of commentary, and journalism, from the AJC and from TV, cable, and radio media outlets, and of course on the Internet. Do these guys and gals in the legislature feel “entitled” to the perqs and their “legislative lifestyles?” Does five pounds of flour make a big biscuit? Georgia needs some real ethics laws and and a real ethics committee with some teeth and power to enforce the rules, whose budeget and resources cannot be depleted by their royal highnesses . But, unless there is a continual drumbeat of pressure, their majesties are not only going to continue to downplay the purchase of influence by folks who can afford to buy it, like Delta for example, but they are going to everything in their power to make sure the gravy train keeps on flowing. BTW, very interestng article this am. about state legislator Chambers from Buckhead who, filed bankruptcy, lost her campaign funds to creditors, and could not run for re-election. There is another whole can of worms that needs to have the spotlight shined on it. The ability of the legislators and the governor to convert campaign funds to personal use. What?!! Them? Would they ever do something like that?? Again, does five pounds of flour?, etc. But, I thought her comment about how she was now having conversations with the IRS about these funds and the other personal goodies from lobbyists are somehow not reported as personal income to be very uplifting.

captguitarman

May 19th, 2011
2:40 pm

Oops. Forgot. One more thing. There are more and more e-mails circulating about the creation of a Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit the Congresss from exempting itself, and the President and all elected federal officials, their staffs, and employees from the laws that they pass. This amendment would also be retroactive, meaning that if they exempted themselves from past laws (like Obamacare for example – Pelosi and Reid thought it was a great idea for everyone else, but not for themselves, or their districts, states, or union employees – but I digress) they would now be subject to any past laws and all future laws they create and sign into law. That is a great idea, and I think Obamacare was the catalyst to really get the ball rolling on that. Can you imagine how quickly and efficiently many of our worst problems as a nation would be solved if Congress and the Excutive and judicial branches, and all federal employees woke up tomorrow morning subject to every law they have ever passed and dependent on Social Security for their retirement pensions?

Sam

May 19th, 2011
2:52 pm

If these politicians used the medallion to upgrade personal travel, shouldn’t they have to pay income tax on the difference between the regular seat and the upgraded one? How do we get them audited?

GB

May 20th, 2011
1:20 pm

Kyle – I didn’t see Ralston’s name in the original reports or on the disclosure forms, just simply a $1,000 contribution – no free upgrades. Where did you get your info on that?

A thought

May 20th, 2011
4:05 pm

You mention these 8 legislators who said yes, and you mention that it isn’t hard to say “no”. Apparently some said no or there would have been many more recipients. Should we throw the whole 236 into the same frying pan!

Outsider

May 20th, 2011
4:42 pm

Wow, Kyle, great article. I’m impressed. You sound like a Democrat — there may be hope for you yet!

Seriously, this is EXACTLY what good journalism and strong newspapers are all about — exposing this sort of crap. Keep up the good work with stories like this — it is appreciated.