There's a self-serving irony in complaints from some Georgia officeholders, especially lawmakers, about the shortcomings of the state's ethics commission.
The beleaguered director of what is officially named the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission acknowledges some of those shortcomings: "As with any data, there may be errors," Stefan Ritter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.
Ritter's statement came in the wake of a report on the AJC's Watchdog Blog that some of the alleged delinquencies on the commission's website are inaccurate or out of date. One notable example was a registered lobbyist who accrued more than $130,000 in fines after she retired.
Ritter said inclusion on the commission's late list is not necessarily proof of noncompliance; that his small office is trying to manage massive amounts of data; and that "by and large it is accurate."
The bigger issue is whether errors in the commission database justify a bill, passed last year in the House and now pending in the Senate, that would constitute near amnesty for delinquent filers.
House Bill 370 stipulates that officials need not pay fines unless the commission can prove they did not try to file campaign records. (Showing noncompliance is one thing; proving intent would in most cases be impossible.)
According to the AJC, lawmakers who support the bill say technical problems at the commission have been responsible for officials being unable to file campaign finance reports. Ritter responded that those problems have long since been solved. In any case, a law making the "I tried" defense essentially irrefutable would pretty much eliminate any legal incentive for politicians to report who is financially backing their campaigns.
Ritter did not specifically address the bill, but told the AJC that inaccuracies in the database "should have no bearing on amnesty," and that errors "are likely more omission of data [than] over-inclusion, though there may be both." In other words, delinquent filing is, if anything, underreported.
Here's the real bottom line: Ritter has the unenviable task of heading an agency whose funding and authority were stripped away years ago and have never been restored.
If lawmakers are serious about government ethics accountability, they're debating the wrong bill.
Instead of pushing for a law allowing themselves and each other to dodge non-disclosure fines, the Honorables should be talking seriously about the restoration of adequate funding, staffing and authority to a bona fide ethics oversight agency that has the people and the tools to do its job.
It's hard to imagine more convincing evidence of legislative integrity than a General Assembly pushing for a real ethics commission empowered to see that public officials play by the rules.
As of this writing, no such item is on the agenda ... or the horizon.