Gears grind at state ethics commission

In a day-long meeting, the state ethics commission did something they haven't done in a long time: Make progress.

"Everything about this meeting has been very fulfilling," said Commissioner Dennis Cathey, who chaired Thursday's meeting.

In recent years the ethics commission (formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission) has been roiled by internal controversy and damaging lawsuits. In short, it became a laughingstock if anyone had the stomach to laugh.

The nadir -- arguably -- came last September when the commission voted to fire former executive secretary Holly LaBerge, a symbol of the office's inability to function. Since then, commission staffers, operating without a leader, have begun digging out of a hole dug over many years.

One major item on a packed agenda was the adoption of rules implementing ethics reforms passed nearly two years ago. The reforms put the first-ever limits on the gifts lobbyists can bestow on public officials, but the new law left lobbyists and politicians with a lot of questions on how the $75 cap is supposed to work.

The meeting Thursday -- the commission's first of the year -- was the first time the commission has attempted a rules update since 2011.

“Some of these rules go back to at least the creation of the commission," staff attorney Robert Lane said.

And some of the tougher questions will wait some more as the commission tabled several proposed rules following complaints from lawyers and do-gooders in the audience.

One proposed rule affirms what immediately became a practice when the $75 cap was installed Jan. 1, 2014.

The rule states lobbyists can split the tab to keep a public official under the $75 cap, but no lobbyist can spend more than $75 each per expenditure. So a lawmaker can enjoy a $150 dinner if two of his lobbyist friends split the cost.

The commission tabled this rule for study after lawyers pointed out that the wording would not allow gifts specifically exempted by the law, such as out-of-town trips for "educational" purposes. Attorney Doug Chalmers, in what became a recurring theme, said the proposed rule is too broad and goes beyond the scope of the law.

Commission lawyer Bethany Whetzel said lobbyists are asking for clarification on whether the $75 cap refers to a single instance, like a meal, or running caps that accumulate throughout a day or beyond.

Commissioner Heath Garrett then said what no lawmaker wants to hear: "Maybe what we are doing is trying to fix legislation that needs to be fixed legislatively."

Chalmers also sandbagged an attempt by the commission to install a rule governing how to account for charter plane flights in campaign finance reports. The commission has struggled with this rule for years and Chalmers called the proposal -- modeled on a federal rule -- "one of the most convoluted rules I've ever seen."

The commission tabled it for more work.

The commission also tabled a proposed rule that would allow the commission to adjust campaign donation limits every four years. Lawyers in attendance pointed out that state law says the commission has to adjust the limit for inflation following every election cycle -- commission attorneys say this is impractical since there are election cycles that end every year.

Also tabled were rules on when candidates are to dispose of certain excess contributions and when they can start raising funds. The commission has about three months to work on the tabled rules before their next meeting.

Still, work did get done, passing a large number of rules uncontested. Including:

She’s no lady. She’s my wife!

The 2013 law says lobbyists are held to a $75 cap on most spending for public officials, like state legislators.

But what about spouses or children of public officials? They aren't public officials themselves. Can lobbyists spend whatever they want?

The commission rule says such expenditures are “made on behalf of a public official and must be reported as such.”

Help from my friends

For years many local elected officials relied on their city or county clerk to “help” them fill out their campaign finance forms. Much of that came to an end in 2010 when the Legislature required candidates in local elections to file electronically.

Locals from Bainbridge to Toccoa howled at the inconvenience and in 2013, lawmakers allowed them to again file locally. But locals have been warned they cannot use taxpayer-funded employees to do it for them.

The commission eased up a little in their rules, saying “staff may render assistance … if such assistance is ordinary and in the course of performing their regular duties.” The rule says staff cannot offer opinions and the help must be “clerical in nature.”

The commission also closed about two dozens ethics complaints, most by consent order. Staffers still have their work cut out for them. Lane said the commission still has a backlog of about 220 cases, some going back a decade.

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About the Author

Chris Joyner
Chris Joyner
Chris Joyner is an investigative reporter. An Atlanta native, Joyner has been with the AJC since 2010.