2012 Legislature: To restore public trust, pass ethics reform

(Note: My colleague Jay Bookman has his own post on the ethics reform and a brief explanation of our joint project during this legislative session.)

Skepticism is a virtue, as a magazine’s motto once had it, but the thought is incomplete without this corollary: Cynicism is corrosive.

That is particularly true in that realm which makes cynicism oh-so tempting: politics. Adopting a “they’re all crooks” mentality has the perverse effect of giving license to those pols who are crooked, by failing to distinguish them from the others. The best defense against that mentality is a good-government offense, and that’s where a renewed push for wide-ranging reform of state ethics laws comes in.

After a failed attempt in 2010 to cap the value of gifts such as meals from lobbyists to legislators, the issue is coming back up this year. This is the year to see it through.

“At a certain point, things get to the point that when the public sees what’s going on, they question the motives,” said Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus. “We need to take this issue off the table.”

McKoon and Rep. Tommy Smith, R-Nicholls, plan to sponsor a bill touching on lobbyist gifts and much more. It’s still being drafted, but the basis is the 26-point list of reforms championed by such groups as the Tea Party Patriots, Common Cause Georgia and the League of Women Voters.

That’s an unlikely alliance in some respects. But then, good government shouldn’t be a partisan or ideological issue.

(That said, Georgia Republicans, who have the votes to pass this thing anytime they want, might want to take note: While an impressive 72 percent of registered voters recently told pollsters for the AJC that they favor a limit on lobbyist gifts, the figure was even higher — 82 percent! — among self-identified Republicans.)

Nor should good government be only about naming names from the past. As many readers know, this newspaper has reported lobbyist-funded trips for certain legislative leaders that cost thousands of dollars. That reporting was important. But, going forward, so are these thoughts from McKoon:

“We don’t need to make this about personalities, we don’t even need to make this about what was reported in the past under the current law, because everything that has happened and has been reported is lawful,” McKoon told me Thursday after announcing the ethics push.

“The question that confronts us now is a public policy question. And my position on that question is that if we continue not to have a limit, that it damages this institution [the Legislature]. It damages our ability to be trusted by the public. So the way to show good faith and renew that trust is to pass a law that establishes a limit.”

While it’ll take more than that, as McKoon readily acknowledges, that’s a good starting point. But if he and Smith are to get their colleagues to that starting point, they’ll need the help of Georgians willing to demonstrate with telephones and keyboards that their healthy skepticism hasn’t disintegrated into unhealthy, apathetic cynicism.

Note: Again, I recommend Jay’s post on the same topic. And here are contacts for key House and Senate officials on this issue, as listed on the General Assembly’s website:

Senate

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle: 404-656-5030

Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock (Majority Leader): 404-463-1378

Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton (Chair, Ethics Committee): 404-463-5258

Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain (Secretary, Ethics Committee): 404-656-0075

House

Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge (Speaker of the House): 404-656-5020

Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton (Speaker Pro Tem): 404-656-5072

Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta (House Minority Leader): 404-656-5058

Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs (Chair, Ethics Committee): 404-463-8143

– By Kyle Wingfield

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78 comments Add your comment

arnold

January 13th, 2012
7:28 am

No gifts. No anything. I don’t care what is your political party.

Ragnar Danneskjold

January 13th, 2012
7:47 am

I believe in full disclosure, but otherwise oppose additional moralism in the code. If the voters don’t care, nobody else should, and the history indicates that voters don’t care. I oppose the joint effort of Messrs. Bookman and Wingfield as a waste of time. Better we limit the session to a single 48 hour period, to keep them from passing anything.

stands for decibels

January 13th, 2012
7:48 am

I’ve resolved to contact these officials about this issue. Thanks, Kyle, for bringing this to light.

stands for decibels

January 13th, 2012
7:53 am

Better we limit the session to a single 48 hour period, to keep them from passing anything.

How do you keep that surrender flag of yours so very white and bright, Rags? Clorox, perhaps?

independent thinker

January 13th, 2012
8:20 am

Ethics reform in Georgia – that is hilarious!

HDB

January 13th, 2012
8:28 am

If the populace really cared about ethics reform, then why do they elect ethically-challenged people like Gov. Deal to office??

Mary Elizabeth

January 13th, 2012
8:35 am

I just posted the following post on Jay Bookman’s blog – which deals with the same subject matter – and I had stated that I would, also, be posting my remarks on this blog. See below:
—————————————————————————————-

“We didn’t have a revolution so the special interests could run the government,”(Rep. Tommy) Smith said. “We had a revolution so people could run the government.”
————————————————————————-

BRAVO to REP. TOMMY SMITH for his commitment to the same values and ideals that inspired our Founding Fathers to form our “more perfect union” and for his courage in sticking with this commitment, in spite of the fact that he could lose the Chairmanship of the State Planning and Community Affairs Committee in doing so. (I do not believe, however, that Speaker Ralston would make such a move that would be so contrary to the best interests of Georgians.)

When politicians are allowed to accept money and bribes from lobbyists, a more threatening outcome than valuing materialism is created. They, and we, will have created a culture in Georgia whereby politicians believe that they have the right blatantly to pursue their own self-interests instead of working for the interests of their constituents. Condoning a “culture of self-interest” by our state legislators only reinforces the “Age of Greed” that has been on the American landscape for far too many decades.

Rep. Smith, you make me proud of my south Georgia roots. What you are doing is exactly what my father, an outstanding city manager in my south Georgia hometown, would have encouraged you to do. I thank you not only for myself but for my deceased father.

I will post these remarks, also, on Kyle Wingfield’s blog, and I will call all of the legislators on both Jay Bookman’s list as well as Kyle Wingfield’s list. I wish to thank these two ethical journalists not only for these articles today, but also for posting names and phone numbers of legislators who have the power to stop the era of self-seving politicians in Georgia.

The next step is to work to ensure that the money that politicians, state and national, can accept for their election campaigns is very limited, perhaps even limited to government funds. We must recreate the America envisioned by our visionary Founding Fathers. This nation must remain, as Lincoln so passionately expressed, “of, by, and for” the people, themselves.

Road Scholar

January 13th, 2012
8:52 am

Ind Thinker: “Ethics reform in Georgia – that is hilarious!”

First you have to have ethics before you can reform it! Limit gifts to $25; this would also apply to meals. No tickets, trips etc. And a monthly report would be required to be filed.

Jay/Kyle: Has anyone put on a spreedsheet the ethics restrictions of the states surrounding Georgia? That would be a good start to define the proper plan.

carlosgvv

January 13th, 2012
9:01 am

Kyle, how long is it going to take you to realize that Georgia politicians don’t give a fig about “public trust”. They have learned the people will vote them into office no matter what they do.

Lee

January 13th, 2012
9:10 am

My company has a $200 annual limit on gifts from a single vendor. This allows for an occasional meal and deminimus items such as coffee cups, t-shirts, and ball caps. Likewise, we do not compromise the integrity of our counterparties and hold ourselves to the same limitation.

A good, common sense approach, IMHO.

quick work break

January 13th, 2012
9:29 am

Unfortunately, they now equate their complete dominance in the state government as a mandate to do whatever they want.

clyde

January 13th, 2012
9:37 am

Limiting political graft is like trying to shove 10 pounds of doo doo into a five pound bag.Try as you will,a lot will escape.

Ragnar–,I like the old Polish system where government members could send a servant to simply say,”I object”. Once the objection was spoken aloud government was dissolved for the year.This system kept spending down for years.

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
9:57 am

clyde: That may be true. But I hope you’ll also agree that it’s better than leaving all 10 pounds lying around…

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
9:58 am

Lee: IMO, the exact amount for the limit is negotiable — and it’s worth noting, since I didn’t do so in the OP, that “gifts” include anything from meals to the kind of items you mention to “fact-finding” junkets near and far.

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
9:59 am

carlosgvv: If you want to make them think otherwise, pick up the phone or send an email. But if you just wallow in your convenient cynicism, I don’t want to hear you complaining anymore.

td

January 13th, 2012
10:01 am

Ragnar Danneskjold

January 13th, 2012
7:47 am

I agree with the full disclosure. There should be a on-line database, fully accessible by the public, and ANY gift should be required to be posted within 24 hours by the lobbyist to a legislator or they pay the same amount in a fine to the state. 3 offenses and they are kicked out of the capital grounds for a certain time period. No limits or restrictions needed. If the voters of a district does not have a problem with the gifts then it is the problem of those voters.

The sunshine rules should also apply to contributions. Unlimited and posted searchable database on the internet within 24 hours of receiving. If not then the legislator would have to send the contribution to the state and not get to keep it.

clyde

January 13th, 2012
10:04 am

Kyle–In the bag or out of the bag;the smell is still the same.

td

January 13th, 2012
10:09 am

Mary Elizabeth

January 13th, 2012
8:35 am

We are no where close to what our founders thought would be a more perfect union. Our founders NEVER thought the Federal government woul have so much more power then the states.

carlosgvv

January 13th, 2012
10:11 am

Kyle – 9:59

Since picking up the phone or sending them an E-mail will have about the same chances as a dixie cup in a gale, I’ll just keep on wallowing in my cynicism.

wallbanger

January 13th, 2012
10:12 am

Why doesn’t the AJC post on the front page monthly the gifts given to each of the elected officials, and by whom, and then in the next column record their vote for a given lobbyists’ cause? Then 1 and 1 would be clearly 2, and the graft would be apparent.

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:20 am

td: I’m all for disclosure, and more of it. You have to be careful with the time requirements, because too short a window will favor big companies/trade associations/lobbying firms that can afford to pay someone to handle it, while discouraging participation from smaller operators without the resources to do the same.

Here’s my problem with relying only on disclosure: Right now, there’s too much of the “everybody does it” mentality, leading voters to be apathetic about ethics when they weigh the candidates. HDB asked earlier why Deal, with his reported problems, got elected if Georgians care about ethics. Well, who was his opponent? Roy Barnes, whose record from his time in office wasn’t exactly pristine.

I, for one, believe voters might well take these factors into greater consideration if they had more faith that conflicts of interest, etc. were being monitored more effectively. There’s no upside to letting the “they’re all crooks” mentality fester.

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:21 am

carlosgvv: Then kindly refrain from sniping about the issue when you post here.

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:21 am

wallbanger: The front page isn’t big enough for that.

Mary Elizabeth

January 13th, 2012
10:28 am

Carlosgvv@10:11 a.m.

“Since picking up the phone or sending them an E-mail will have about the same chances as a dixie cup in a gale, I’ll just keep on wallowing in my cynicism.”
——————————————————————————————-

Carlos, I always tell my dear sister that I must be sure to vote in each election, so that I can, at least, cancel out her vote, of which I invariably disagree.

So, this morning I am posting my following words on this blog, as well as on Jay Bookman’s blog, to “cancel out” the impediment, on both blogs, that your voice is doing to curtail the belief, and the hope, that citizens can make a difference in their government, which, of course, they can, once motivated:

NOTHING VENTURED, NOTHING GAINED!

TBone

January 13th, 2012
10:29 am

I lobbied for a number of years for a trade association and disclosed my “gifts” on the required intervals. Ethics reform is like changing the locks on the door; you are trying to keep the rift-raft out. Honorable people behave ethically. If the government trough were reduced in size many of the lobbyists looking for more tax payer money would be forced to leave but that ain’t gonna happen. So as long as they are handing out goodies for 40 days you will have unethical politicians and lobbyists feeding at the trough.

Ant Farmer

January 13th, 2012
10:31 am

All they need is proper disclosure. Some legislators will accept $100 in gifts – others might accept none – and others might have several thousand dollars in gifts and dinners. It’s up to the voters to decide.

JF McNamara

January 13th, 2012
10:39 am

Kyle,

You are completely against capitalism. The most efficient way to determine our laws is to let those most successful have the biggest say. That is what is happening now. In addition, Georgia is getting better lawmakers because they can take more lobbyist gifts. If you cut the gifts out, the “pay” would be diminished and we would lose out on the best talent. They would seek other jobs. We have no need for overbearing, wrong headed government regulation. The free market is the best solution.

Just kidding. That paragraph does sound familiar though, doesn’t it?

Dusty

January 13th, 2012
10:44 am

Kyle,

May I ask why you and Bookman have to work together on the same project? I thought the plan was to have two different views of any project.

As to ethics, everybody wants them but some want them more than others. I’m not sure we can manufacture ethics for those that don’t have them. Regulations maybe but not ethics. .

td

January 13th, 2012
10:47 am

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:20 am

I am flexible on the timeline as long as it does not stretch out to per month or per quarter. I would like to see during the session who is giving what to my legislator so that I can ask them about it when I see them on the weekends in the local restaurant or at the local party meeting.

I disagree with you on the “everyone does it” statement. Our local members of the legislature lives, works, shops and is in the local community everyday. If the information is easily available then they would be questioned for some of the gifts.

I also do not see a big problem “and it is not apathy” with my legislator receiving a free meal, going on a “fact finding mission” or even getting free tickets to a professional sports event as long as I know who paid for it and have the chance to ask them about how said benefit may effect their vote on said legislation. When you find out 6 months latter then it makes you look petty asking the question in your monthly county party meeting or interrupting your legislators dinner to ask them about the matter. I have asked my legislators before if this group wants to be so nice to you then why don’t you ask them why they can not pay the same attention to our local HS football team with a sponsorship? Those types of questions will get people all fired up in a party meeting:-)

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:51 am

Dusty: We’re not contractually obligated to be at odds on every issue. We tend to come by opposing viewpoints naturally, but we do sometimes agree. And in this case, we agreed it could benefit our mutual goal — ethics reform — by working jointly and trying to take partisanship/ideology out of the equation. It doesn’t mean that other reasonable people can’t disagree with us.

And fwiw, it also doesn’t mean that either of us has any say whatsoever in what the other one writes. I’ll frame and advocate the issue my way, and he’ll do so his way.

JF McNamara

January 13th, 2012
10:51 am

Dusty,

“May I ask why you and Bookman have to work together on the same project? I thought the plan was to have two different views of any project. ”

While I agree that opposing viewpoints are almost always a good thing, allowing public officials to take bribes is bad for everyone. Legislators are paid by the state to represent their constituency. Bribes ensure this doesn’t happen. It ensures that they represent the highest bidder, and that is changing the original intent of our government. A citizen no longer actually has representation.

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:56 am

td: I believe the reporting requirement is already two weeks, at least during the session. But I’d have to double-check that. And I’m not at all saying I’d oppose a shorter reporting window, just that 24 hours might be so restrictive as to shut out some folks who deserve to be heard just like everyone else.

Also: I am not saying “everyone does it.” What I’m saying is that mentality is too pervasive, and there’s value in establishing some limits that would help chip away at that mentality.

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:57 am

Also, td: That information already is readily available. Yet people still think there’s a problem.

getalife

January 13th, 2012
11:01 am

I think we should give Jay and Kyle a standing ovation.

Bravo sirs Bravo.

Logical Dude

January 13th, 2012
11:10 am

Kyle: we agreed it could benefit our mutual goal — ethics reform — by working jointly and trying to take partisanship/ideology out of the equation.

And in so many things, this should happen. Thank you Kyle and Jay for the teamwork!

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
11:10 am

JF: “Bribes” is not the right word. I can’t definitively say it never happens, but if it does, it’s already illegal. That’s not the real point here.

The point is that the kinds of activities going on now — weekend trips (and longer), night after night of expensive dinners during session, multiple trips to ballgames, etc. — turn what should be arm’s length relationships into something more like friendships. And it’s harder to say no to your friends.

Now, you can’t outlaw friendships, and it must be said that lots of these relationships pre-date legislative careers and trips to Hal’s. For the record, I have such friendships myself. I would suggest that’s true for just about everyone who grew up in Georgia, attended a state college — especially one as big as UGA — and works in or around politics. I take the ethical responsibilities of my profession extremely seriously. But just in case, and to help alleviate the concerns of my readers, and even the perception that there should be concerns, this newspaper has very strict ethical guidelines for all its employees that are strongly enforced, including policies on gifts. (Short answer: We can’t take them.)

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to impose similar guidelines on our elected officials.

Dusty

January 13th, 2012
11:19 am

Thanks, Kyle, for the reply. I am sure you will present the facts you find in your own way.

But the thought that you and Bookman are “working together” does not manufacture content. I left Bookman’s blog because I did not like the way he “worked”, part of my own ethics standards.

I appreciate the fact that you wish our state government more honorable in their efforts. Efforts for good intention have been going on since the “Garden of Eden”. Good luck this time! No need to stop trying.

JDW

January 13th, 2012
11:31 am

While there is no doubt we need to revise the regulations associated with ethics, what we really need is a better class of legislator. To some extent new rules will just make it harder for legitimate interests to make their point while the ones that take advantage of the system will just find a new way.

I think the rules should be basic…

Full fast disclosure which to some extent we already have.

Some sort of limit on gifts including tickets and other material items of say $500 per election cycle.

A limit on entertaining, dinner, golf etc…of say $1000 per election cycle. Fact is you can do a lot of legitimate business in these types of activities…again my issue is not so much with the activity it is with many in the current crop of legislators.

Limitations on sponsored travel that preclude the accompaniment of family members or any other non-staff personnel. Extending the gift and entertaining limits to apply during such travel. Again if done correctly such travel can be of enormous benefit. Someone deciding on high speed trains or economic development issues ought to be able to see what those things look like in practice.

There also needs to be some method of monitoring and regulating the use of public office for private gain…see Sonny Purdue and Nathan Deal.

The other thing I find interesting is the same people that constantly decry rules and regulations as they pertain to corporate interests or people as a “The Nanny State” mentality want to impose even more rigid such restrictions on public officials. Seems to me that if you think corporations can self govern the same criteria should apply.

getalife

January 13th, 2012
11:31 am

Stop crying dusty.

Give it a rest.

getalife

January 13th, 2012
11:34 am

Now our President wants to shrink government.

Libs and cons fighting corruption together.

Change.

Dusty

January 13th, 2012
11:34 am

McNamara,

As I look upon our state legislature, I find that they do not perceive the work of a lobbyist as bribery.

So here, we are trying to decide how much bribery can be called ethical. We disguise it with other names such as fact finding, info from specialists, etc. Kyle (and Bookman) are trying to help us decide how much “bribery” is ethical.

When you get right down to IT, all lobbyists should be banished from the legislators and their work. Now that is the pure ethical response.

I prefer Kyle’s view with no joint effort from another journalist. When I read his reports, that is what I want. When you work with another, the influence is always there, ’specially when one has worked in the “field” much longer than the other .

Dusty

January 13th, 2012
11:35 am

Getalife,

Go home!

Name Withheld

January 13th, 2012
11:37 am

I’ve been in state government for many years, most of it at the level where I interact daily with elected officials. And I’m telling you there is NO LEGITIMATE REASON that an elected official should accept any gift of any kind. None. At all.

Many of our public officers smile politely at the gifts, then pass them on or forget them. But believe it or not, there are many who are actually in it for the gifts, and will leave if they can’t have them.

To those of you who think disclosure is a cure, or limited the amount of gifts will help, I’ll say this: When you look at the reported gifts, you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

getalife

January 13th, 2012
11:37 am

dusty,

Lets leave the partisan bs out of this one.

Deal?

JF McNamara

January 13th, 2012
11:40 am

Kyle,

If you have given your legislature “friend” free trips and a consistent diet of free meals prior to their election then it is not a bribe. If the trips and meals are a change in behavior now that the person has been elected, then it is a bribe because you now want to induce or influence that person.

Maybe I have awful friends, but when we eat together, we generally split ticket and every once in a while someone treats. I’ve never had a friend pay of a trip for me and never will.

Legislators are paid by the government (taxpayer). Working for the legislator is their job just like working for the newspaper is your job. If you can’t accept ANY gifts because it is a conflict of interest, then the same rule should apply to them.

If we are not paying our legislators enough money to govern without bribes under a “No Gift” system, then I wouldn’t mind raising their salaries. I want my vote to count for something, and bribes (or gifts) significantly undermine my vote.

Name Withheld

January 13th, 2012
11:41 am

@ Kyle:

Bribes occur on a regular and widespread basis, and it’s gotten worse in the last ten years. Has nothing to do with party affiliation, more to do with the types of people who now seem to be drawn to elective politics, and the fact that public officials have calculated the public’s interest to be very limited. But it’s bad and getting worse.

td

January 13th, 2012
11:48 am

Kyle Wingfield

January 13th, 2012
10:56 am

I see your point Kyle and feel as you do that our legislature should not even appear to have the perception of not being ethical. I will respectfully disagree with you on the solution to the perceived problem. I am a firm believer in personal responsibility and paying the consequences for ones actions. The legislator is a representative of a group of voters in a district and as such place their trust in their representative to represent their interest and to uphold the overall philosophy of the voters that gave him/her that trust. I feel it is the responsibility of these same set of voters to monitor the actions of their representative and hold their representative responsible to the community. I do not want to force my since of ethics on the voters of say Atlanta and I do not want Atlanta voters to do the same to me. As long as everything is open as easily accessible then I trust my community of voters to give my representative the consequences of going outside of what our community feels is the proper ethical standard for them to hold.

I am all for shining as much light onto what a representative is doing. I want to know everything they are doing and I want it public knowledge, easy to find and easy to interpret. I want the AJC and other media outlets to shed light on these expenditures and to tell us how gets the most and who gets the least (the more light the better).

TRUTH

January 13th, 2012
11:48 am

It definitely starts with what motivates our elected officials to engage in corruption. Where they hoodwinked into it? Or are they in politics for its financial benefits? Why has our media abandoned going after these corrupt politicians? Put them on BLAST! Eliminate the Citizen’s United law. It doesn’t just benefit Republicans, it also benefits Democrats. Here in Georgia, one needs to only look at an ethically challenged Governor and then look at the overall administration. They are bought. Cronyism. Blatant ethical violations. And the citizens of Georgia elect them as if they are pristine.

When did bad behavior earn rewards?

[...] Apologies for the late Poll Position today, but I wanted the ethics reform post to be online all [...]

Linda

January 13th, 2012
11:51 am

Name@11:37, What a chilling statement!
@11:41, I’m one of those who have had limited interest in GA politics. I apologize. I just changed, thanks to you.
So what is the solution?