Charlie Harper: Ethics and accountability

February 26, 2013 

As the 2013 General Assembly begins the heavy lifting portion of the session, we will begin to see bills that have been debated in public (and many that have only been concepts behind the scenes) begin to take their final form. One that has dominated much of the headlines, but has still yet to show in its likely final form, is that of ethics reform.

Both the House and Senate have made major reversals in public rhetoric with respect to both the need for reform and the substance they are willing to propose. A public referendum demanding reforms combined with the public rejection over the largest transportation initiative in a decade due to lack of trust can motivate politicians that way. The reaction from House and Senate leaders has been welcome and mostly constructive. The public, however, must remain engaged to ensure the final bill is one that is required to address the problems at hand.

In 2009, Georgia lost the speaker of the House and cast the entire legislature under an ethical cloud when it became public that affairs between legislative leaders and lobbyists were commonplace. A 2010 ethics reform package focused instead on extending the reports that lobbyists must file with the state ethics commission while cutting that agency's funding. The responsibilities of legislators with respect to their relationships with lobbyists went unaddressed.

For the last two years, Senator and now former Rules Chairman Don Balfour has been a public exercise of how transparency - the buzzword cure-all recommended by most legislators prior to this session - is in itself insufficient. It was transparent that the rules chairman billed excessive expenses to Georgia's taxpayers despite contradictory filings from lobbyists showing they were entertaining him out of state.

Getting action from fellow legislators in charge of self-policing his actions was a process that was less than direct, and required creativity of citizen activists to finally file ethics charges with the Senate to get the process started. Balfour eventually faced Senate censure and a fine with the matter referred to the GBI for further investigation. Their report continues to sit with Attorney General Sam Olens, awaiting action. The public continues to wait for accountability.

Meanwhile, despite evidence of a still underfunded ethics commission which remains dependent on funding by the legislature it is supposed to regulate, the debate over ethics reform is currently centered on who should have to register as a lobbyists and how much these lobbyists will be allowed to shower government officials with gifts each day and year.

While it is important the debate is now public, we should fear we are again missing the point.

Adding more people to those who must register as lobbyists will not stop those who are currently abusing the system from doing so. Limiting the amount of money that can be spent on a public official does not make those unwilling to self-police within a broken system more willing or able to do so.

Instead, new Senate rules that limit gifts to members also specifically prohibit citizens from filing ethics complaints to the body. The door that was the catalyst to bringing official scrutiny of the actions of Senator Balfour has been closed under the first salvo of 2013's ethics reform. Georgians cannot afford for additional reforms to take additional steps backward while putting superficial steps forward.

Ethics reform must be about the ability to hold those who break rules and laws accountable, with a clear and easily understood and enforced process to do so. It must also produce independence that does not exist under the current framework.

We are currently discussing gift caps and who must file forms. We are not discussing what penalties an elected official will face for breaking these rules, accepting gifts beyond whatever limits are prescribed, or accepting gifts that go unregistered. Currently, there are none. The sole liability for accepting an unreported gift goes to the lobbyists, not the official.

There is no current penalty for an official to accept an excessive gift because there are no limits. Those who have opposed limits have argued that it will just push transactions underground and undisclosed. It's easy to assume that would happen, because there is no penalty for those who accept them - and in some cases request or demand them - to change their behavior.

The penalties for unethical acts cannot remain one-sided. Officials must stand to face clear and direct penalties if rules are broken. There must be a clear and direct method to report transgressions that is actionable by those who aren't under the control of those same officials.

Unless we can accomplish these goals, any bill currently proposed amounts to little more than a public relations exercise. Georgia missed the opportunity for real reform in 2010. Missing it again this year would be a tragic failure, and one that would only perpetuate the public's current deep and deserved mistrust of our government.

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

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