Legislature to focus on ethics in 2010

On the first day of the 2010 legislative session, expect the state Capitol’s basket for incoming legislation to be piled high with new ethics reform bills. Some have already been filed.

Nothing spurs reform like scandal, and the Georgia House just had a whopper — the career immolation of Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram).

Now, the crowd under the Gold Dome has taken a sudden interest in tightening rules.

“It has suddenly become very fashionable to talk ethics,” said David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), the Republican caucus’ choice for new speaker.

He said he is looking for “real change” and would like to see a substantial reform package.

Ralston said he has been flooded with ideas in recent days and expects a package of reforms to come out of the session. He wants to see limits on spending by lobbyists on travel and gifts for legislators. To set a positive tone, he said, he would ban candy and flowers from being delivered to the speaker’s office and no lobbyists will be allowed into the speaker’s office without an appointment.

He said he wants any changes to help achieve a simple goal: “you behave the way your mama would want you to behave.”

Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs), who heads the House Ethics Committee, said he’s ready.

“The [House] Ethics Committee is prepared to act immediately on any and all legislation,” he said.

Some changes being considered include:

● Severe limits on how much lobbyists can spend on gifts, food and trips for legislators. Georgia is one of only 11 states that have no limits, but such expenses must be reported. Limit proposals have ranged from $100 per event to no more than a cup of coffee.

● Permanent funding and an expansion of powers for the State Ethics Commission. Currently the watchdog panel must seek funding annually from the body it is supposed to watch. And its role is limited mostly to responding to complaints and collecting disclosures. It does no auditing. Rick Thompson, the former executive secretary of the Ethics Commission who now runs an ethics compliance consulting business, said Georgia needs an ethics czar with more authority and more money.

● Expanding the state’s Open Records Act to include the Legislature. Currently, the House and Senate are exempt from the act so all correspondence and other records involving legislators is kept private.

● Extending the length of time from one year to two years that departing legislators would have to wait before they could start lobbying.

Ralston said there used to be great resistance to such ideas from the House leadership.

“That’s all changed,” he said.

Ethics advocates are as excited as they have been in years that they can pass tough new rules.

“There is an opportunity for real change,” said Rep. Wendell K. Willard (R-Sandy Springs), chairman of the House judiciary committee, who is revising his own ethics legislation to submit when the Legislature returns on Jan. 11.

Willard submitted a bill last year that would limit to $100 the amount lobbyists could pay for legislators when taking them out to dinner or to an event. Willard said few legislators were interested in his bill.

“It was dead on arrival,” he admitted.

He planned to resubmit it this year anyway– but he wasn’t hopeful. Then the Richardson imbroglio hit, and “lo and behold, all these things started to unfold,” he said.

But it’s a long and circuitous road from a bill’s introduction to the governor’s desk. Any such legislation will have to pass through committee rooms and hallways peopled by lobbyists and legislators less than eager for more scrutiny and restriction. It’s like sending Little Red Riding Hood through the forest to Grandma’s house. More than likely, she’ll run into at least one wolf.

Richardson probably would have blocked ethics legislation if he was still speaker. He was generally hostile to new ethics rules, open records or expanding public meeting laws. Ironically, he now has become the chief reason such legislation has a good chance of passage.

When his personal problems exploded this fall, they exposed an unseemly world where powerful legislators carry on close relationships with lobbyists outside public scrutiny.

Richardson announced in November that he had attempted suicide because he was depressed over his failed marriage. He said he was recovering and planned to carry on as speaker. But then this month, Richardson’s ex-wife went on television and said he had an affair with the lobbyist for a company seeking passage of a particular bill. Richardson was a co-sponsor of the bill. Richardson’s ex-wife also accused him of threatening to use state agencies to harass her. Richardson announced his resignation within days of the television broadcast.

Ralston said none of the legislation being considered now would deal directly with Richardson’s situation. If the allegations are true, Richardson already violated ethics rules, he said.

“You can’t legislate good behavior,” Ralston said. “You can’t legislate common sense.”

Ralston said, however, that the atmosphere at the Capitol in recent years led to a loosening of standards, and that atmosphere has to change. Others agree.

“We definitely got off track, big time,” said Rep. Tommy Smith (R-Nicholls), who made a bid to be the next speaker but then dropped out before the vote.

Smith, who has been in the House for more than 30 years, said the Legislature needs to be more transparent in how it conducts business.

The Democratic minority in the House has already dusted off some of their bills and filed them for the new session. Their proposals include:

● No gifts for legislators of more than $25.

● Lower contribution limits for campaigns.

● Authority for the state ethics commission to investigate conflict of interests allegations.

● An abuse-of-power clause added to state ethics rules.

As the minority party, the Democrats are unlikely to drive any ethics reform this session. And Republicans are quick to point out that many of these ethics changes could have been made years ago when the Democrats controlled both houses and the governor’s office.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has pushed ethics reform in past years, may submit new legislation this year or he may let the Legislature produce its own, said spokesman Bert Brantley.

University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock, an expert on politics in Georgia and across the South, said ethics legislation is a good thing to pass in this tight budget year because for the most part, “it doesn’t cost you anything.”

He said historically, scandal has always been followed by reform. “It takes a scandal to get legislators to embrace this,” he said. “If there isn’t a scandal, they figure nobody’s looking.”

Thompson, the former Ethics Commission chief, said the overall goal should be absolute transparency, so voters can see how the people’s business is being conducted.

“No cloud, no fog,” he said.

While ethics changes are being bandied about, some urged caution. Stefan Passantino, an attorney at McKenna, Long & Aldridge who specializes in representing clients on ethics issues, said he thinks more transparency would be good, but he worries about too many rules burdening well-meaning legislators and lobbyists while not really stopping people from acting inappropriately.

“The wrong new rules won’t stop bad behaviors. It’s more likely to be a pitfall for those already trying to follow the rules.”

What actually happens in the coming months to change the legislator-lobbyist relationship from a last call slow dance to a ballroom waltz is anybody’s guess. But some kind of change is likely.

Ralston, who ran in 2008 against Richardson for speaker and lost his committee chairmanship as a result, said the scandal has shocked many voters, who want substantive reform.

“Georgians don’t want us to do this in a hasty way,” he said. “But they do want us to do it.”

Staff writer Aaron Gould Shienin contributed to this report.