Georgia ignores ethics rule

As a state employee, Dr. Dilipkumar Patel is subject to a strict ethics policy. He may accept no gifts, no speaking fees, no meals — nothing worth more than $25 — from any company that does business with state government.

As a physician at a state mental hospital, though, Patel undeniably appeals to at least one such firm — the maker of medications used in treating psychiatric patients.

So in 2007 and 2008, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which manufactures the antipsychotic medicine Seroquel and other drugs, spent more than $2,200 on speaking fees, meals and conference expenses for Patel, disclosure reports show.

Patel, who earns $176,000 a year at Georgia Regional Hospital/Atlanta, is one of about 650 state employees who accepted gratuities from government vendors during the past two years, the reports show. The ethics policy for state government’s executive branch applies to many of those employees. None, however, has been disciplined for violations.

The disclosure reports, filed with the State Ethics Commission, reveal a side of lobbying that rarely draws scrutiny.

Public attention most often focuses on the exploits of lobbyists who pace the Capitol halls during legislative sessions, then entertain lawmakers with food and drink after hours. Promoting corporate agendas is a year-round activity, however, especially for companies that sell goods and services to state government. They know that bureaucrats, rather than lawmakers, often make million-dollar decisions.

So the vendors’ lobbyists take government employees and appointees out for drinks and meals; hand out tickets to sporting events, concerts and other affairs; and pay for conferences, trade shows and sales pitches billed as “educational briefings.”

“We often interact with people in social settings,” said Christy Ihrig, a spokeswoman for Georgia Power. The utility spent $55,000 on state workers the past two years. But return favors, Ihrig said, are “never the expectation.”

The coziness between vendors’ lobbyists and state employees came to light a decade ago, when Gov. Roy Barnes fired Dotty Roach, head of the state’s purchasing agency, for accepting gifts from software firms.

A state investigation found that, at a convention in 1997, a saleswoman for Oracle Corp. had given Roach a spa gift certificate worth $359 and a $540 ride in a hot-air balloon. The saleswoman later earned $450,000 in commissions after the state bought $40 million in software from Oracle and PeopleSoft Inc.

The Ethics Commission fined each company $2,000 in 1999 for failing to disclose gifts to Roach. No such penalties have been imposed since.

Ban disregarded

Roach’s firing remained a fresh memory when Gov. Sonny Perdue took office in 2003. On his first day, Perdue signed an executive order banning gifts worth more than $25 to state employees under his command — virtually every worker in every agency except the Legislature and the court system.

Violating the order could cost employees their jobs. Adhering to the gift ban, Perdue said at the time, would “safeguard their ability to make objective, fair and impartial decisions.”

Nevertheless, lobbyist disclosure forms illustrate how widely the policy is disregarded.

Vendors’ lobbyists reported spending about $106,000 on state workers in 2007 and 2008, although about one-third received gifts below the $25 threshold. Regardless, the real total may be much higher. Some lobbyists report gifts to government employees in the same filings in which they disclose spending on elected officials. A spot check of seven of those filings found another $12,000 in gifts to employees since 2007.

The recipients include agency heads and administrative assistants, computer specialists and forest rangers. Some get dinner and drinks that run into hundreds of dollars; others, breakfast or lunch for less than $10.

Even gifts to relatively low-ranking employees sometimes seem intended to give lobbyists proximity to power.

For instance, state police officers who work in the Capitol accepted more than $5,600 from lobbyists in 2007 and 2008, reports show. A trooper who drives for House Speaker Glenn Richardson got tickets to a baseball game and an automobile race and four meals, worth a total of $511, from Georgia Power.

The utility, which billed state agencies $52.7 million last year, actively lobbies its regulators, including the General Assembly.

The company has been especially generous with Richardson’s staff. In 2007 and 2008, the company provided workers in the speaker’s office with at least 66 meals, three rounds of golf and tickets to seven baseball and football games and one concert. The gifts’ value totaled $4,137.

No policy covers gifts to legislative workers. But “we expect our employees to use good judgment and discretion in the decisions they make in and out of the office,” said Marshall Guest, an aide to Richardson.

About one-fifth of the lobbyists’ spending went to employees of one agency, the Department of Economic Development.

As a project manager for the agency, Chip Mitchell works with companies considering locating or expanding in Georgia — potential electricity customers. In 2007 and 2008, records show, Georgia Power paid for Mitchell’s meals or refreshments 106 times.

Georgia Power also provided Mitchell with lodging and three rounds of golf. The company bought meals or refreshments or paid other expenses for Mitchell 12 days in June 2008, 10 days in July, nine in August and 10 again in September.

On July 22, 2008, Mitchell was part of a group playing host to what his agency called “an international prospect.” That day, records show, Georgia Power provided Mitchell with lunch ($2), dinner ($48), refreshments ($4), more refreshments ($7) and refreshments again (another $35).

Mitchell accepted gifts during the two years valued at $1,695. In a brief telephone conversation recently, he said agency policy prevented him from commenting.

While Georgia Power spreads its gifts among many employees of many agencies, other vendors target specific groups.

AstraZeneca provided almost all of the $16,166 accepted by Department of Human Resources employees. Most are physicians, pharmacists and nursing managers at state psychiatric hospitals.

Patel, the doctor at Georgia Regional in Atlanta, collected $1,500 in July 2007 for a speech to other physicians about AstraZeneca’s medicines, records show. Three other times, the company reported paying Patel to listen to talks by other doctors. And it picked up the tab for 26 of Patel’s meals over the two years.

AstraZeneca paid $1,500 each to four other doctors who work for state agencies, records show. Sixteen more state-employed health care professionals either were paid to attend speeches or were guests at AstraZeneca meals. The company also sponsored several events for state hospital staffs where food was served during discussions of AstraZeneca’s medications. A state spokesman described the gatherings as “lunch and learns.”

No ‘personal gain’

Agencies acknowledge that Perdue’s 2003 executive order prohibits many of the gratuities their employees accept, and most departments’ own ethics policies contain similar rules.

Patel, for example, was expressly barred from accepting fees from a vendor, said Tom Wilson, a spokesman for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The newly created agency took over the hospitals in July.

Patel did not respond to telephone messages. But Wilson said the doctor told him he had considered his speeches for AstraZeneca to be “outside employment.” Patel severed his ties to the drug maker in 2007, Wilson said, after officials told him it violated the ethics policy.

“Clearly,” Wilson said, “working for a vendor is something that would be a violation.”

At Economic Development, however, officials contend many gifts are allowable.

“None of these expenses were for the personal gain” of employees, said Alison Tyrer, the agency’s spokeswoman. All, she said, were incurred “in the context of promoting Georgia and its communities to create jobs.”

Georgia Power is less a vendor than a “partner” in courting new industries, Tyrer said. “As the private member of a public-private partnership, its resources enable the state to maximize its efforts while conserving taxpayer dollars.”

Perdue’s executive order specified no exemptions. It said agencies, not outside entities, should pay their employees’ expenses.

Almost seven years after the order took effect, Perdue still expects employees to comply with its requirements, Bert Brantley, the governor’s communications director, said in an e-mail Friday. “We are reminding all agencies of their responsibility to make certain that any employee contact with a vendor meets the intent and spirit of the order.”

For government vendors, the gifts ensure access to key figures in state government, much as political donations and gifts for elected officials do.

“It’s very important to us that the state is viable and attracts new business,” said Ihrig, the Georgia Power spokeswoman. The company, she said, assists the state’s economic development efforts, even on projects from which it will not benefit.

AstraZeneca’s gifts to medical professionals are “strictly controlled,” a company spokeswoman, Laura Woodin, said.

The company’s goal, Woodin said, is to give doctors “accurate information” about its medications. Physicians who are paid to give speeches are “selected on the basis of their expertise,” Woodin said, “and are compensated according to the fair market value of their services.”

AstraZeneca, she said, does not pay doctors for prescribing its products.

‘Not that much’

For many in the Capitol, gifts from vendors’ lobbyists are a customary part of their jobs.

In 2007 and 2008, Dana Lemon, a member of the state Transportation Board, accepted tickets to four baseball games, three basketball games and two football games — gifts worth $2,496 —from AT&T and Georgia Power.

Lemon said lobbyists’ clients treated her not to win favor, but “because I like sports.”

“That’s part of their community support,” she said. “They’re good corporate citizens.”

Lobbyists leave tickets with the board’s administrative aide, Lemon said, and attach no conditions to her accepting them.

“Of course not,” she said. “No, no. Of course not. They don’t go [to events] with us. They don’t sit there and talk business with us, nothing like that.”

Lemon was surprised she was one of the top recipients of gifts from vendors’ lobbyists.

“It’s not that much,” she said.

Regardless, unlike most in state government, Lemon apparently does not have to abide by the governor’s gift ban. The Transportation Board incorporated the ban into standards of conduct for the agency’s employees — but exempted itself.


A month of gifts

More than 650 Georgia state workers accepted meals, tickets to events, and other gifts, valued at more than $106,000, from government vendors in 2007 and 2008, public records show. Here is a sample of gifts to one worker, Chip Mitchell, a project manager for the state Department of Economic Development, during September 2008. All came from Georgia Power.

Wednesday, Sept. 3

Breakfast, $10

Dinner, $16

Refreshments, $8

Refreshments, $13

Thursday, Sept. 4

Lunch, $7

Refreshments $8

Friday, Sept. 5

Refreshments, $17

Tuesday, Sept. 9

Lodging, $134

Lunch, $11

Dinner, $82

Thursday, Sept. 11

Refreshments, $4

Wednesday, Sept. 17

Coffee, $4

Thursday, Sept. 18

Lunch, $13

Thursday, Sept. 25

Refreshments, $4

Refreshments, $6

Sunday, Sept. 28

Golf, $37

Tuesday, Sept. 30

Lunch, $12

Refreshments, $3

Source: State Ethics Commission


Lobbying for business

These companies, all of which do business with state government, reported their lobbyists paid for meals, lodging, tickets to events and other gifts for public employees in 2007 and 2008.

Georgia Power, electric utility $55,604

AstraZeneca International, pharmaceuticals $20,265

Apple Inc., computers and software $17,239

Synovus Financial Corp., banking $6,466

Oracle USA Inc., software $3,343

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, insurance $1,898

Verizon Wireless, telecommunications $1,002

AT&T, telecommunications $879

Note: Lobbyists for some state vendors include expenses paid for public employees on separate reports intended to disclose their spending on elected officials.

Source: State Ethics Commission


How we got the story

This article originated from a routine scanning of documents posted on the State Ethics Commission’s Web site ( Reporter Alan Judd, who covered Gov. Sonny Perdue’s ethics initiatives at the beginning of his administration, noticed that numerous state employees covered by rules imposed by the governor’s executive order of Jan. 13, 2003, were nevertheless accepting meals, event tickets and other gratuities from lobbyists for companies that do business with state government. Judd compiled a database of the gifts and analyzed the connections between the vendors’ lobbyists and the state employees.