When House Speaker Glenn Richardson resigned last week, he left more than a state Capitol in turmoil.
The sudden departure of the first Republican leader of the Georgia House, under less-than-savory circumstances, threatens to shake the 2010 race for governor to its core.
That Democratic candidates have come down with a virulent case of righteousness should surprise no one. House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin has applied for a patent on the phrase “culture of corruption.”
The real debate has erupted on the other side of the aisle. It started even before Richardson walked out the door ‚ì fueled by worry among many Republicans that they will be forced to defend a Legislature that, aside from being ineffective, has descended into a tawdry caricature of sex and influence-peddling.
Merely in terms of strategy, Richardson’s resignation poses a problem for U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal of Gainesville, the speaker’s choice for governor. The House Republican caucus, normally a deep well of both money and contacts, has been paralyzed.
Deal remained mum through Richardson’s ordeal last week. One possible reason: Deal himself is the subject of a complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics, on allegations he intervened with state officials to protect a business he owned.
The real problem is that Republicans have advertised themselves not just as the party of family values, but of reform. Of clean-dealing and virtue for virtue’s sake.
Only one of seven GOP candidates for governor called for Richardson’s resignation before the fact. “We … have a responsibility to hold ourselves — and each other — accountable,” Secretary of State Karen Handel said.
Handel said the phrase wasn’t intended to wound former state Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah, another GOP candidate for governor. But she wasn’t upset that others interpreted it that way.
“From the moment you become aware of an impropriety or wrongdoing, and you do nothing about it, you become part of the problem,” Handel said last week.
In 2007, Johnson headed a three-person House-Senate ethics panel that was handed the task of examining a complaint lodged against Richardson, charging that he had an “inappropriate relationship” with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist. At the time, the speaker was also co-sponsoring legislation that would have helped the company construct a $300 million natural gas pipeline.
The complaint, filed by then-state Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Kahn, was dismissed for lack of evidence. Johnson, as president pro tem of the Senate, was the face of the decision.
Susan Richardson, the speaker’s ex-wife, explained to the world last week that the affair did indeed take place. She provided the speaker’s e-mails to prove it. Three days later, her ex-husband resigned.
In an interview Friday, Johnson said it would have been nice to have that information years earlier.
“All we had at the time was unsubstantiated rumor by the chairman of the Democratic Party. It was just a repeat of gossip. And the committee wasn’t going to — and in fact couldn’t — chase gossip,” Johnson said. “The rules of the committee forbid us to look at anything that couldn’t be used in a court of law. Our hands were tied.”
He called Handel’s remarks on the matter “inappropriate.”
But his competitor wasn’t satisfied. She suspects the complaint was rejected out of hand because of its Democratic author. “Doesn’t one have a responsibility to ask a couple questions? Were any questions asked?” Handel said.
Johnson had anticipated the question. “Who would you interview?” he asked. Richardson had denied the accusation. Democrats had no facts to offer. “You don’t call a wife, saying, ‘Your husband’s been accused of having an affair. What do you know about it?’ “ he said.
(State Sen. George Hooks, a Democrat from Americus, was also on the panel. In an interview, he agreed with Johnson.)
The debate is hardly finished, but Handel does make this point: If the rules of ethics investigations dictate that complaints can’t be truly scrutinized, then why bother?
It’s a question that Republicans will have to answer next year.
Handel and Johnson may not agree on whether Republicans policed themselves properly in the Richardson matter. But both understand the frat-house problem at the Capitol — to a degree that might disturb some members of the public.
“I don’t think the culture is linked just to Republicans. It’s the culture of the Capitol that has been here for decades,” Handel said. “It just hasn’t changed. It’s a throwback culture.”
The secretary of state has issued standing orders to the young women in her office. “They are not to fraternize with the legislators. It’s just not a good idea,” she said.
For his part, Johnson said he often lectured fellow senators about “appropriate behavior.” In the last hours of the 2008 session, it was Johnson who swept a group of drunken female interns off the floor ‚ì and ordered them out of the Capitol.
But he had acted on something he’d seen with his own eyes. “The Capitol is full of gossip. You just turn a deaf ear to it until you have a fact,” he said.
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