Just when you start to think Georgia’s incredible shrinking ethics watchdog panel can’t possibly get more curious or less effective, it does.
So far this year we’ve learned that the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission -- which officially has more words than members -- has too little funding, virtually no investigative or auditing capacity and apparently, to listen to some of its representatives, no clue.
The latest revelation about the sorry state of Georgia’s government ethics oversight mechanism comes in an Associated Press review of records showing that members of the commission continue to make political contributions to candidates and parties, and that one of them is a registered lobbyist.
None of which is illegal, and all of which is galling. Critics, including Common Cause and a former state ethics commissioner, say such practices create a situation rife with possibilities for conflict of interest.
Rick Thompson, former ethics commission chief executive, said politicking by members damages public confidence in the integrity of the process: “I’ve always believed that once you join the commission you should cease political activity,” he said. And Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant, a member of the Common Cause Georgia board, told AP: “Clearly, people who are regulated by the ethics commission should not be sitting on it.” Well duh.
Such concerns apparently do not trouble the consciences or sleep of some who are supposed to assess the ethical behavior of other government officials: Three of the five commissioners have contributed to political campaigns while sitting on the panel.
One, Kevin Abernethy, was appointed to the commission by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle last August and donated to Cagle’s re-election campaign in October. Another, Patrick Millsaps, donated $2,000 to a PAC he helped found. And Josh Belinfante, who serves on a committee of the Fulton County Republican Party, was campaign chairman for a Sandy Springs City Council candidate and is a registered (and paid) lobbyist for the Georgia Pharmacy Association and United Healthcare.
What could possibly go wrong there?
Plenty. And the concern is not coming just from civic watchdogs like Common Cause. State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, who chairs the House Ethics Committee, said lawmakers “need to take a very close look at this,” and said he and Senate Ethics Committee chair John Crosby would meet with commissioners for some blunt discussions.
Even a benefit-of-the-doubt argument -- i.e., that these are honorable, public-spirited men -- doesn’t change the inherent impropriety of politically active officials monitoring political activity.
We’ll say it again: Reconstituting a genuine, effective, adequately funded and, most important of all, politically impartial state ethics commission should be among the General Assembly’s first orders of business at the next regular session, if not before.