Transparency alone is not the ticket for Georgia legislators and ethics

Today is the first full day of action in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It puts me in the mind of the Georgia Legislature — and not because they call the tournament “March Madness.”

Two years ago, when a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts was proposed, I asked a House committee chairman to explain why he opposed it. He recounted this story:

The last time the Final Four was in Atlanta (2007), by late March he’d worked a lot of late hours away from the family. As he walked toward the exit one night, a lobbyist passing by held out a pair of tickets and suggested he take his son to a game.

As one might expect, they had a grand time. Looking back, he told me, he wouldn’t have wanted to deprive his son of that experience they had together. A $100 gift limit, you see, would have left father and son to watch the game at home or pay their own way.

Remember: This was his defense of $100-plus gifts.

Lest you think this was a one-off scenario, the online records of the agency once known as the State Ethics Commission reveal that 15 legislators avoided such NCAA deprivation.

Well, at least 15: In light of the protests from legislators who say all we need is transparency, it’s worth noting this particular chairman’s name was not listed on the website. An oversight, perhaps. I wonder if there were any other such slip-ups.

Besides the transparency line, another thing some Capitol denizens would have you believe is that sneaky, tassel-loafered lobbyists are liable to come upon an unsuspecting legislator at any moment and shove a ticket or $300 meal down his or her throat.

Ahem.

Around this time last year, I was in a social setting with a lobbyist who, within a few hours, relayed to me maybe half a dozen unsolicited requests from legislators asking about tickets to this ballgame or that concert. (It didn’t occur to me to start counting until the bulletins had become fairly regular.)

Then, on Monday, I was standing next to a Senate staffer when a powerful senator walked up. He told her he deserved “credit” for pledging to get her tickets — he didn’t say to what, or from whom — had her favorite team only advanced further in last weekend’s ACC basketball tournament at Philips Arena. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get the impression this oft-lobbied senator was going to dig into his own per diem to buy the tickets.

I chose not to name names in these instances for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that there’s no point in making this about particular personalities. This is not a matter of a few bad apples. I’m not sure most of them would consider this practice rotten, even if citizens might think their lawmakers are spoiled.

According to my review of the ethics commission’s data, since 2008 an average of 156 legislators a year — almost two-thirds of them — have accepted tickets from lobbyists to some kind of event (not counting those related to politics or policy).

Braves games, Falcons games, Bulldogs games, Yellow Jackets games, Hawks games, Thrashers games, concerts, plays, dance performances, comedy shows, the circus, the zoo, the aquarium. There’s something to appeal to everyone.

What appeals to the lobbyists is your guess. Of 1,990 ticket-related items since 2008, a grand total of 15 of them — less than eight-tenths of 1 percent — specified a bill name or number which was discussed. These tickets cost a grand total of $350,156. No one believes the purchasers spent that kind of money just because they didn’t have time during the day to ask Mr. Chairman how the kids have been doing.

Then again, maybe that transparency failure is just as well, in light of this one: With 33 of the session’s 40 days past us, not one lobbyist report mentioning the word “ticket” is available yet on the ethics commission’s website.

The Falcons played just one home game in January, but have our legislators been deprived each of the 16 times the Hawks have played here? Did 10 home games apiece for UGA and Georgia Tech (bad as those teams were) have no appeal? Did the ACC tournament get no legislator love?

Well, the Thrashers did leave town. Maybe that explains the apparent ticketlessness.

Ethics reform efforts appear stalled for this year, but supporters vow to keep at it. One possibility is a committee to study best practices around the nation and propose legislation in 2013. Even this relatively tame measure, however, has opposition.

After all, the Final Four is back in town next spring.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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117 comments Add your comment

jd

March 15th, 2012
6:21 am

Bravo — truth! Next step — start tracking their “dates” whose dinner, wine, and whatevers are not disclosed at all!

ragnar danneskjold

March 15th, 2012
7:19 am

Issue just does not arouse me. Now legislature spending, that arouses me. Every dime, other than police functions, is a waste.

Ayn Rant

March 15th, 2012
7:33 am

Politicians are elected to the Legislature to handle the financial affairs of the state of Georgia, not to be the subjects of adulation or vilification by the public. Their cozy relationships with lobbyists and other persons of influence dispensing money for favors is a sideshow to their primary mission.

Let’s focus on their failure to manage the finances of the State rather than their corruption. Have you noticed that Georgia unemployment is higher than the national average? Have you noticed that in a time of financial crisis, the Legislature cuts jobs by reducing spending on education and infrastructure, making job-creating private investment in our state unattractive? Have you noticed their preoccupation with oppressing immigrants, managing other people’s pregnancies and marriages, and touting God’s Covenant with the Jews, instead of improving the economy of Georgia?

Let’s hear more about their abject failure to do the job they were elected to, and less about their old- boy mentality and petty corruption! I’d rather have a competent, but corrupt Legislator than an honest, but ignorant jackass.

Button Gwinnett

March 15th, 2012
7:40 am

Lawyer/Legislators legislating ethics is……………….ridiculous.
.
Every freebie should be recorded and displayed and easily accessable to the public.
No exceptions.
.
Violations?
Capital punishment.
.
Problem solved.

@@

March 15th, 2012
7:50 am

Were I a legislator, I’d take all the gifts they offered, giving nothing in return.

That is, afterall, what government does best.

@@

March 15th, 2012
7:52 am

Oops!

Wouldn’t take long for them (lobbyists) to stop giving altogether.

ragnar danneskjold

March 15th, 2012
8:21 am

I think friend @@ has it right. If, hypothetically, a legislator could be bribed into not spending money, would I object to the bribe? No, I think not – it is the public waste that so-often arises from bribes that is a problem for me, not the bribe itself. If a legislator takes a bribe to pass a law that disproportionately restricts commerce, that is wrong, not because it arose from a bribe, but because it disproportionately restricts commerce.

carlosgvv

March 15th, 2012
8:24 am

In our society, money is THE bottom line. It tops faith, frendship, family, patriotism and morality. As long as our politicians can be legally (or illegally) bribed, they will gladly take the money. Only an entirely different political system could change this.

ByteMe

March 15th, 2012
8:30 am

I would pair an ethics bill with a pay raise. $17K per year for a minimum of 4 months of being kept away from your real job (and in some cases, your family) is too little unless your real job is street sweeper. Let’s get them up to $40K for the job and have $0 in gifts. That’ll solve the ethics problem AND open the pool to more folks to run for office.

JDW

March 15th, 2012
8:34 am

“Ethics reform efforts appear stalled for this year,”

As does everything else…can someone name one decent piece of legislation passed or a single real problem solved? Yet we continue to lag the nation in jobs, education and most anything else of import while leading in foreclosures, bank failures and a variety of “social engineering initiatives” i.e. immigration, gun ownership etc…

We have bigger problems here than a few tickets.

Strike and Replace

March 15th, 2012
8:35 am

This is an AJC Editorial Board issue. If you can’t control the agenda, then silence those that can influence it. Your heavy-handed tactics killed ethics reform. And getting in bed with anti-choice right wing nuts and tea party know-nothings really didn’t help your credibility. If you had any political savvy the Ethics Commission would have its rule making back this year. You kept that from happening. Nice work.

Road Scholar

March 15th, 2012
8:45 am

The politicians say there isn’t a graft problem. So let’s do what they did with the voter ID law ( a law that never was based on specific cases of fraud- if so- name one), if there isn’t a present problem, new ethics legislation shouldn’t be a problem or restrict people from doing there job!!!

As for raising the legislator’s pay, please explain what they have done to deserve one…let alone the present pay and benefits?

Don't Tread

March 15th, 2012
8:48 am

“Only an entirely different political system could change this.” You mean the political system they use in China and North Korea? Maybe Syria or Iran? How about Saudi Arabia? I suppose all of these systems are superior to ours.

The political system isn’t the problem – the lack of punishment is. The prospect of facing harsh punishment will deter crime.

As a side note, the alphabet media reports Blago is off to prison today, and still believes there was nothing wrong with what he did.

Finn McCool (Class Warfare = Stopping Rich People from TAKING MORE of OUR MONEY)

March 15th, 2012
8:51 am

there’s no point in making this about particular personalities.

Ummm, yeah, there IS a point. Until you start embarrassing these people outright you won’t get one thing changed. They need to be called on the carpet to account. Otherwise, they just hide behind the “everybody’s doing it” mantra.

“Some of us…”
“A few bad apples…”
“It wasn’t just me…”

Finn McCool (Class Warfare = Stopping Rich People from TAKING MORE of OUR MONEY)

March 15th, 2012
8:53 am

This is like expecting markets to police themselves. Expecting bankers to play fairly because….they hold important positions and such so they must be honest….”

ByteMe

March 15th, 2012
8:56 am

As for raising the legislator’s pay, please explain what they have done to deserve one…let alone the present pay and benefits?

You’ve obviously heard the phrase “you get what you pay for.” What do you think $17K salary for 4+ months of work away from home and family buys you? Competence? Caring about the people who voted you in? Or maybe graft to cover the difference?

jconservative

March 15th, 2012
8:58 am

Amen Ayn.

On another note:

From an AJC article:

“…the Pew Hispanic Center estimated there were 425,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia as of 2010, seventh-highest among the states.”

Tom da bomb

March 15th, 2012
9:03 am

I agree with each of your points, Kyle. Given the current reality of Georgia politics, however, the current occupants of the House and Senate are not going to change the law. Why should they? They suffer no punishment at the hands of the voters for this graft. The Republican majority knows good and well that they will come back next year in office and with probably more than a two-thirds controlling majority that will allow them to enable all protests from Black Democratic lawmakers. If you are never going to be punished for ethically questionable behavior, you will never change that behavior. That’s simply human nature.

carlosgvv

March 15th, 2012
9:03 am

Don’t Tread – “the prospect of facing harsh punishment will deter crime”

And you think our LAWMAKERS, the ones who are receiving all this lobbyist money, will actually make any laws that will mete out harsh punishment to themselves?

Tom da bomb

March 15th, 2012
9:04 am

Typing error. Meant to say: “. . . that will allow them to ignore all protests from Black Democratic lawmakers.” We now return to the show in progress.

Jefferson

March 15th, 2012
9:29 am

A bribe is a bribe is a bribe. If you suppose unethical/cheatin’ politician, you are one of them.

clyde

March 15th, 2012
9:30 am

A lobbyist is akin to a salesman in the private sector.A few greased palms does wonders toward getting a particular product touted by the salesman to be used by the targeted company.Been there,seen that.I’ve seen people lose jobs when they’re caught too.That shystering was not tolerated where I worked nor should it be tolerated in government.If you can’t be served by ethical people you won’t be served well.Present situation is case in point.

Don't Tread

March 15th, 2012
9:42 am

Carlos, 9:03: Yes, but only if they face the prospect of harsh punishment (e.g. “pass ethics legislation or lose your job”). At some point, the voters will say “enough is enough” and demand that ethics laws get passed – which is what this particular blog is about.

clyde

March 15th, 2012
9:51 am

The second Illinois Governor in a row reports to prison today to start a 14 year sentence for corruption.

The last three Speakers of the House for the State of Massachusetts are convicted felons due to corruption charges.

The list goes on.

Inside Out

March 15th, 2012
10:01 am

I am calling foul on Kyle for refusing to name the lawmakers associated with these claims…If they will not step upand pass an ethics bill, then the next best thing is to put them on public Blast for dipping into the pockets of lobbyist……Wonder if the same type of descretion would have been shown had the Dems been the ones with teh keys to the kingdom???????

Fred ™

March 15th, 2012
10:01 am

These crooks are the Republicans you know, love, and elected. Led by none of than the Grand High Poobah of Thieves Nathan Steal. The man who resigned from Congress before he could be formally charged in the Congress for his corruption.

So what’s your point there lil Kyle? You have what you want and voted for, crooks.

carlosgvv

March 15th, 2012
10:03 am

Don’t tread – “at some point the voters will say “enough is “enough”

Unfortunately, we’ve been saying that for many years now, to both parties. Result? NOTHING.
Socialism, anyone?

sheepdawg

March 15th, 2012
10:08 am

Great artical Kyle, keep the heat on them, and give us their names

Don't Tread

March 15th, 2012
10:08 am

“Socialism, anyone?”….No thanks, I’ll keep my freedom.

Kyle Wingfield

March 15th, 2012
10:08 am

With respect, ragnar: I think you discount the connection between ethics and limited government. If you are buddy-buddy with the rent seekers — and let’s face it, getting to be pals with the legislators is the object of these excursions for lobbyists — you are more likely to give them the rents they seek. There’s no way in which that leads to limited, fiscally responsible government.

Inside Out @ 10:01: I knew someone would make that kind of claim. Let me just ask you this: If I were really trying to protect the Republicans, why would I even write about this issue? Wouldn’t I be better, if that were my aim, to pooh-pooh all this activity or try to explain it away?

Fred ™

March 15th, 2012
10:14 am

clyde

March 15th, 2012
9:51 am

The second Illinois Governor in a row reports to prison today to start a 14 year sentence for corruption.

The last three Speakers of the House for the State of Massachusetts are convicted felons due to corruption charges.

The list goes on.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Not in Georgia. Here you die hard republicans elect them to higher and higher offices.

Don't Tread

March 15th, 2012
10:17 am

“Wouldn’t I be better, if that were my aim, to pooh-pooh all this activity or try to explain it away?”

Or do like the alphabet media does – if something’s going on that’s damaging to your party’s image, don’t write about it at all.

Kyle Wingfield

March 15th, 2012
10:23 am

Don’t Tread @ 10:17: Exactly.

[...] up, Kyle Wingfield paints the legislature with a deservedly broad brush for their refusal to consider any form of gift ban.  I chose not to name names in these instances for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that [...]

DannyX

March 15th, 2012
10:27 am

This goes to show how little power the Tea Party has. Ethics reform was a big issue for the Tea Party this year and they were totally ignored. The good ol’ boys ruled the state when the Democrats dominated state government and the good ol’ boys dominate now with Republican dominated leadership. If the Tea Party is powerless in Georgia, a place where you would think they would be strong, how in the world are they going to be able to maintain any power on the national level?

Not only should Kyle be naming names he should be calling for their replacements. Kyle should be encouraging Republicans to target certain leaders who refuse to advance ethics reform legislation. Right now Kyle is giving state legislators a gift in refusing to confront them directly.

zeke

March 15th, 2012
10:28 am

good for you Kyle; it would be better to pay them a little more if necessary than to allow the lobbyists to get their hooks into them. of course, that will not stop all the ways lobbyists get to them….ie campaign contributions, business deals down the line etc. what was your take on the greg smith opinion in yesterday’s times?

carlosgvv

March 15th, 2012
10:34 am

Don’t tread – 10:08

And the rich will just keep getting richer and you will keep getting crumbs from the table while clinging to your delusions of “freedom”.

Road Scholar

March 15th, 2012
10:37 am

The following is from an editorial by the Northside Neighbor (actually Dunwoody Neighbor) , a conservative newspaper by Dick Williams:

http://dunwoody-neighbor.com/stories/State-representative-defends-current-lobby-laws,181934?content_source=&category_id=7&search_filter=&event_mode=&event_ts_from=&list_type=&order_by=&order_sort=&content_class=&sub_type=&town_id=&page=

“He recounted the ultimate fate of previous House Speaker Glenn Richardson. Rumors had been swirling around his relationship with a female lobbyist. Richardson had maintained his innocence until his former wife went public. Immediately, Wilkinson said petitions were circulated in the House with enough signatures to force the speaker’s resignation. He resigned before they could be presented to him.”

Wilkinson defends the system as working. But for years there where rumors that Richardson was corrupt and having an affair. Where were the members of his party from the time of the rumors until the time his wife made the revelations? In “bed” with Richardson? Ethical? Yeah, right! You only have ethics when you are caught?

AmVet

March 15th, 2012
10:40 am

Kudos, Kyle.

In a state where it is seemingly rare, you have the moral courage to put ethical governance before party pandering.

I find it unconscionable that these men, supposed our elected “leaders”, are still allowed to get away with this malfeasance. That they do it so unapologetically is truly sad.

Georgia is but one of three states in the entire republic that doesn’t restrict the amount of bribe money form lobbyists, etc.

Disgraceful…

Don't Tread

March 15th, 2012
10:40 am

Oh…I get it…freedom is just a “delusion” if other people have more money than me. :roll:

Freedom has many other aspects besides the bank account balance.

Jefferson

March 15th, 2012
10:45 am

The GA speaker is the fox over the hen house.

Bernie

March 15th, 2012
10:46 am

Georgia legislators and ETHICS are diameterically opposed to each other. its like the mixing of GAS and oil. The sun and moon, right and wrong, up & down, doing whats right as opposed to doing the heavy lifting of the party. Treating the women of Georgia with respect and honor versus delegating her to a second class citizen through legislative caveats.The current group are avowed PROBERS with further intentions of expanding PROBING legislation for everyone excluding them. Now, why would they possibly want to change now?

Kyle Wingfield

March 15th, 2012
10:47 am

Road: Just for the record, Dick Williams’ paper is the Dunwoody Crier, which is not one of the Neighbor papers, and the columnist you quoted is Dick Yarbrough.

Just saying..

March 15th, 2012
10:49 am

Again, which Party is in charge at the Capitol? Ah, yes, the sole Party of Integrity, the Party of Fundamental Values, the Party of TRUTH (you’re welcome, Linda), the Party of Responsibility, the Party of God,….ad nauseam.

Kyle Wingfield

March 15th, 2012
10:49 am

Thanks, AmVet, but nothing is going to change just because I (or Jay) write a few columns. Citizens and voters have to do something based on what we write, or else it’s all for naught.

Kyle Wingfield

March 15th, 2012
10:52 am

To Just saying and anyone else who wants to make this about partisan politics: These practices predate the GOP majority; it’s just that, before, the reporting was non-existent and then only limited. And Republicans are not the only ones taking the goodies.

That’s not to defend the GOP. But there’s a reason Jay and I, and Common Cause and the tea party, took this on as a joint effort. Because it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a partisan issue.

ragnar danneskjold

March 15th, 2012
10:53 am

Dear Kyle @ 10:08, agree with the fact of connection, but I think “ethics” legislation has cause/effects backwards. It is the mindset that “legislation is good or useful” that leads to the bribes, not the other way around. Ethics legislation masks the problem, does not affect a cure.

ByteMe

March 15th, 2012
10:53 am

But there’s a reason Jay and I, and Common Cause and the tea party, took this on as a joint effort. Because it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a partisan issue.

Some people don’t grasp the whole “frenemies” thing so well.

Kyle Wingfield

March 15th, 2012
10:55 am

Strike and Replace @ 8:35: If legislators only fail to restore the commission’s rule-making authority because of a few columns and editorials in the newspaper, I can only question their true commitment to changing that policy. If we ruffled some feathers down there, all the more reason to pass something and be able to talk about an ethics-reform success.

In short: I ain’t buying it.

Will

March 15th, 2012
10:57 am

Kyle:

If you think the disregard of the will of the people is curious this year, wait until republicans have a super majority in the General Assembly. At that point, one political party will control every elected Constiutional office in Georgia, the State Supreme Court and will have a minority party that will have been reduced (due to redistricting by the republican majority) to numbers that no longer have meaning.

What’s that you say? Democrats had this type of power for generations? Of course they did and they abused that power as republicans will do. So what’s your point, that republicans can be as abusive of majority status as democrats were? That they deserve to be because democrats were?

Unfortunately, republican politicians are probably right – they have been blocking meaningful ethics legislation for years (as did democrat politicians when they were in the majority) and have kept being re-elected for years.

Since it is unlikely that democrats will be able to defeat incumbent republicans after the redrawn districts push more and more democrat voters into districts that are already safely democrat, the only hope for good government in the General Assembly is for good government republican candidates to run against bad government republican incumbents in the primary. Again, this is the only hope but, in reality, “good government” is not an issue that will carry many challengers to victory. If it becomes an election year issue, republicans will simply tag republican challengers to the marxist, godless pro-abortion, pro-Obama democrat politicians” who support such and thing and scare unsuspecting voters back into the fold. So what about the democrats, aren’t they supporting “good government” ethics? Sure, but only because they know it will not happen and they will not be in the majority. They can get some milage out of their support knowing they will still be keeping their “goodies” from lobbyist.

And the band plays on………..