Latest allegations drive new push for ethics reform in Georgia

The last two legislative sessions were dominated by talk of the first-ever lobbyist spending limits and other attempts to tighten state ethics rules. Now the latest allegations swirling around Gov. Nathan Deal’s office are giving supporters fuel for a third thrust at ethics reform next year.

Hints of bipartisan support have already emerged behind a push for a more permanent source of funding for ethics investigators that’s not tied to the whims of the Legislature, as well as giving state attorneys new powers to probe official corruption. And Deal’s Republican challengers promise to make ethics an overriding theme in their campaigns, but the election-year timing could make it harder to pass significant changes.

Yet some legislative leaders say they have little appetite for another round of changes, particularly when the new law hasn’t had time to take root. And Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s not opposed to new changes embraced by lawmakers, but that he wants the commission to first aggressively use newly restored powers to clarify muddled campaign finance rules.

“I’d like to see them utilize that expanded authority,” Deal said. “I’m not trying to tell them what to do, obviously, but I think it’s pretty obvious when you have areas of uncertainty … we need rules in place for guidelines and direction.”

Like abortion and guns, ethics reform is a constant theme under the Gold Dome. House Speaker David Ralston helped push through an ethics package in 2010 that increased reporting requirements by lobbyists and stiffened fines for late filers, and last year legislators restored some funding to the state ethics commission.

But the most significant changes in more than a decade were adopted this year after an intense legislative debate that raged until the final hours of the 40-day session. Deal signed an ethics overhaul into law in May that imposes a $75 cap on dinners and many other gifts lobbyists lavish on public officials, the state's first-ever limitations on those kinds of perks.

Yet critics said the vague language and confusing exceptions in the law prompt unresolved questions that need to be revisited. The issues include such basic concerns as whether attorneys are required to register as lobbyists and whether lobbyists can split checks for dinners topping $75.

The series of reports by the AJC that raised questions about the independence of the ethics commission charged with holding elected officials accountable have also spurred calls for a broader ethics overhaul. FBI investigators recently interviewed the state ethics attorney who claims the commission is too close to Deal’s office, allegations the governor has denied.

Several lawmakers said the reports that Deal’s office recruited the commission’s new director even while the agency was investigating campaign finance complaints stemming from his 2010 campaign were a wake-up call. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, is backing two proposals intended to push far beyond this year’s changes.

The first is legislation that would give the state attorney general power to call statewide grand juries to investigate public corruption. The other would create a permanent funding source for Georgia's watchdog agency tied to a fixed percentage of the annual state budget that roughly equals $4.5 million a year. That would be a significant increase from current funding that hovers around $1.3 million.

Both of McKoon’s proposals would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before they could be put on the ballot for a public vote — a tough task in an election year. But he said they would keep government more accountable while ensuring the commission is more independent.

“We shouldn’t have the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse,” he said.

Senate Democrats are rallying behind a similar proposal for fixed funding for the ethics commission as well as another proposal to allow the state’s top judges to tap the commission’s members. Three of the panel’s five members are now selected by the governor, while the other appointees are named by House and Senate leaders.

The commission has “been compromised from a public confidence standpoint,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said. “It’s always been compromised because the appointments come primarily from the governor’s office.”

Other legislative leaders aren’t so sure a change is needed. State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, who heads the House Ethics Committee, said funding for the commission has recently stabilized and that he doesn’t see the need to change the way the members are appointed.

“Someone is going to have to give me concrete evidence and specific instances where a member has a conflict and has voted,” said Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs. “I have seen commission members recuse themselves from votes where there is a perceived — or what they believe to be — a conflict.”

Members of the commission are preparing for new rule-making authority that takes effect in January. Ethics commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said the agency is focused on confronting problems under the current law, but he acknowledged that legislative fixes may be needed on a long-term basis. What those were, he would not say.

Don't expect the issue to fade, particularly during the run-up to next year's election. Superintendent John Barge, Deal's chief rival in next year's GOP primary, has put ethics changes at the center of his campaign. He proposes a new system with three Republicans, three Democrats and the state's top judge to tap the seven members of an ethics panel.

“It would make it a much more fair and balanced approach to overseeing ethics,” Barge told the AJC. “We just have to get to the place where we’re actually willing to hold our own selves accountable.”