Charlie Harper: Ethics more than gift caps

January 18, 2013 

Senators have started the ball rolling, adopting new Senate rules that install a cap on lobbyist expenditures for any member of the body in excess of $100. There are, however, enough loopholes in those rules to drive a nice junket through. It is, as they say, a start but hardly the effort Georgians and this legislature need.

While the gift cap has been the rallying cry of many who have been championing ethics reform, others have fairly consistently acknowledged its window dressing role in more fundamental problems that face our system of governance and the integrity required within it for it to work properly.

A serious ethics reform package must contain two things: Independent oversight and personal accountability of the government official.

Georgia has long relied on a system of "transparency" to self-police ethics in government. We currently operate under the assumption that if campaign contributions and lobbyist expenditures are disclosed, the public can see who is spending money on whom, conclude for what purpose and motive this has been done, and then take corrective action if needed. This concept is fundamentally flawed and broken.

After more than two years of "transparency," issues reported from now former Rules Chairman Don Balfour of Gwinnett's disclosures and other public records has brought him censure from the Senate and removal of chairmanship from the Senate's most powerful committee. Some will say this is an example that the system works. Those people hope you're not paying attention.

Balfour's transgressions were reported by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Walls on his website Atlanta Unfiltered, but were largely ignored by his peers and scoffed at by former Senate leadership.

Only a constant drumbeat of press, comparisons to a former state senator who served jail time for similar transgressions, and two ethics complaints filed with the Senate from private individuals forced the Senate to act.

It's worth noting that under these new improved Senate rules, a private citizen is no longer allowed to file ethics complaints with the Senate. As is often the case with ethics "reform," the details involved in the package undercut the changes promised in the headlines of press releases.

Georgia cannot assure its citizens that is has ethical and open government until the system of "self-policing" has given way to an independent body that can review complaints and administer punishment without fear of budgetary or employment retribution. An independent grand jury process to review complaints would be a far superior check on our officials' activities than meaningless reports filed by lobbyists and campaign consultants.

Furthermore, any true reform must contain accountability for the actions of the elected official. Currently, if an elected official accepts a gift from a lobbyist that is not reported, the only sanction and penalty goes to the lobbyist. There is no incentive for the official to worry if the trip, meal, sporting event ticket or other honorarium they receive will ever see the sunlight that is supposed to make this system work. Quite the contrary, many would prefer these events go unreported.

There will be attempts to continue to add reporting burdens to the lobbying community and expand the scope of the number of people who are required to register as lobbyists. Georgians should also reject this cynical ploy to pretend that lobbyists act alone with respect to ethical transgressions.

Ask any of the lobbyists who play by the rules and try to work within this system, and they will quickly confide that it is broken. While many elected officials do not abuse the meals and other items afforded to them, most lobbyists have tales of inviting certain legislators to dinner, only to have that legislator invite several additional friends and relatives to join. When all members of the party order a second meal to go, it's clear that some do use and abuse this system. Additional lobbyist reporting will not fix that problem.

The current system produces a lot of records, but little accountability. For Georgians to get the ethics reform they so desperately want and need, legislators will have to work long and hard to design a system that removes their role of self-policing, and institutes specific measures which will hold them accountable when transgressions are committed. Only then will we have achieved true ethics reform.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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