In politics, ethics is what you do when no one is looking.
And in the dark of night late in the legislative session, when no one was allowed to look, leaders of the Georgia General Assembly this year took a potentially decent ethics bill and rewrote it. The final version signed into law Monday by Gov. Nathan Deal accomplishes little and in several important ways weakens state ethics laws.
For that, we have been told to be grateful now that public faith in our leaders has been restored.
“I have enacted these bills to strengthen ethics laws in our state because the public demanded it and good government longed for it,” Deal said. “Our success as leaders of Georgia depends heavily on the public’s ability to trust us. Georgians are correct to insist that the voices of the people echo louder under the Gold Dome than the narrow views of special interests. Together, these bills constitute a major step in improving ethics, trust and transparency in our state.”
The “headline” of the legislation is a new, $75 spending limit on what an individual lobbyist can spend on an individual legislator at a particular event. Despite requests to clarify the bill, the new law puts no limits on how many such gifts a lobbyist can confer on a legislator in a day, week or session. Likewise, no effort was made to prevent two or three lobbyists from spending $75 each on a single legislator. Instead, we were advised to trust that legislators and lobbyists would abide by the “spirit” of the law.
And just what “spirit” might that be?
One section of the bill, added overnight without public notice or discussion, legalizes the receipt of special airline upgrades that Delta Air Lines had given House Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other legislative leaders. Those upgrades and flying-club memberships are worth as much as $15,000. Under this bill that “the public demanded … and good government longed for,” such gifts are not merely legalized. They no longer even have to be made public. They simply become part of the unspoken perks of power.
Rest assured, though, that “the voices of the people echo louder under the Gold Dome than the narrow views of special interests.” Because after all, it’s the spirit of the thing that matters.
In addition, the $75 limit does not apply to lobbyist-financed jaunts to conventions and other gatherings at resort hotels around the country, which was one of the prime concerns of the reform effort. Other than a ban on overseas jaunts, there is still no limit on such trips or what can be spent on them. Spouses and staff members may also still attend, again at lobbyist expense.
Then there’s the matter of the attorneys.
Early in the debate, Ralston made it a point of principle that everyone who lobbied under the Gold Dome should have to register as a lobbyist, including private citizens who lobbied without pay for civic and volunteer groups. That set off a bitter fight between Ralston and Tea Party representatives at the Capitol, who saw themselves not as lobbyists but as citizens petitioning their government.
Whether by design or happy accident, that battle served to divert Tea Party energy and attention from the reform effort itself. And somehow, after all the smoke had cleared and despite Ralston’s supposed insistence that all who lobbied would have to register, the final bill ended up giving lawyers a huge exemption. In many if not most cases, attorneys can now lobby without registering, without reporting gifts, and without being bound by expenditure limits.
I guess that would be another “major step in improving ethics, trust and transparency in our state.”
Under previous law, fairly tight if not ironclad language required that attorneys who lobbied had to abide by lobbying rules. Under the new law, those provisions have been rewritten as to make them all but unenforceable. To force registration, the undermanned, outgunned and politically docile state ethics commission will now have to prove that an attorney was hired “with the specific purpose of lobbying,” an all-but-impossible task given attorney/client privilege.
Rather than dispel public cynicism, such changes and the underhanded means by which they were achieved only deepen it. Efforts to depict the legislation as some great victory for open government add insult to that injury.
When Georgia’s football team reconvened for bowl practice last weekend, coach Mark Richt didn’t have any special contrivances or complicated plots for getting his team motivated to play Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
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