Legislature slashes watchdog agency

Georgia’s State Ethics Commission, guard dog of campaign and lobbying laws, has had obstacle after obstacle thrown in its path by the very elected officials it’s charged with watching.

It’s enough to make critics question whether the General Assembly is purposely trying to weaken the commission.

In an era of deep budget cuts, the Ethics Commission’s budget for the current fiscal year was cut more than 30 percent. That’s compared to the House of Representatives’ budget, which was cut just 8 percent. Yet the state budget still describes the commission’s funding as going to “protect the integrity of the democratic process.”

The commission’s mission has been hampered: Only one case has been opened and closed by the commission in 2009, compared to 50 in 2008.

Also this year, state lawmakers stripped the commission of its ability to write rules — interpretations of state statutes that have the power of law.

This summer, Rick Thompson, the commission’s executive secretary, who many credit with turning the ethics agency into a national model, announced he will resign next month to launch a private consulting firm.

Veteran government watchdog Emmet Bondurant says no one should be surprised by this.

“It’s perfectly clear the Legislature has a certain lack of enthusiasm for ethics and ethics reform,” said Bondurant, the former chairman of Georgia Common Cause. “Hence, cutting the budget. And the downturn in economics are an excuse and cover for essentially trying to neuter the ethics board.”

Some lawmakers say there was no concerted effort to weaken the commission.

“The budget cuts are unfortunate, but we’re making budget cuts on schools, we’re making budget cuts everywhere,” said Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville).

The Ethics Commission is the state’s investigative and enforcement agency for campaign finance and lobbying laws. The commission investigates complaints against candidates, elected officials, political action committees and lobbyists, and it audits campaign finance reports.

Its mission is to protect the public’s interest in knowing who is trying to run and influence government. The goal is to make sure officials and candidates follow ethics law. Sometimes that can be done with a nudge. For example, if a candidate makes mistakes on a form or doesn’t file a report, the commission will often forego major fines if the problem gets fixed.

But in recent years the commission has increasingly used big fines to punish more serious violations. In 2008, for example, the commission levied its biggest ever fine — $80,000 against the Georgia Association of Realtors, which had made more than half a million dollars in campaign contributions without reporting them.

On one day in 2008, the commission issued more than $180,000 in fines.

Now, the Ethics Commission is dealing with its own money problems.

House leaders say the $550,000 budget cut was not punitive. They point out that the historically under-funded commission saw its budget nearly doubled in 2006 to $718,000 and again in 2007 to $1.6 million. The increases were to purchase new computers and upgrade its facility.

The improvements won national attention. The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity ranked Georgia’s Ethics commission as sixth-best in the country in 2006 — up from 26th in 2004.

And, lawmakers say, the commission’s budget is still nearly double what it was. Even after the cuts this year, its budget is $1.23 million.

Ethics Commission chairman Bill Jordan disagrees that the money was intended as a one-time increase for capital expenditures. With the new money came significantly more work. A 2005 reform bill gave the commission responsibility for processing and posting hundreds of campaign contribution reports, which had formerly been under the secretary of state. The commission also took on responsibility for policing lobbyists seeking state contracts.

Jordan and Thompson, the soon-to-be-former director, say the cuts won’t affect the quality of the commission’s work.

Instead of eliminating staff, the commission found other ways to reduce expenses. They eliminated 60 percent of their office space. Now three people share an office. They didn’t replace staffers who left. They got rid of all staff cell phones and maintenance contracts. They nearly zeroed out postage costs.

Still, Thompson said, the commission won’t be able to launch as many independent investigations or do as many random audits.

The staff, he said, worked hard the past year to eliminate a backlog of hundreds of cases, which will allow the leaner staff to focus more on those that arise.

Time will tell if that’s true, but the numbers raise doubts. In 2007, the commission opened and closed 42 cases. More than 20 ended in orders for civil penalties or fines. In 2008, that number increased to 50 cases, 13 of which ended in penalties.

In 2009? One case has been closed. It was dismissed.

If the commission must continue to enforce the laws despite the budget cuts, the Legislature’s move to strip it of rule-making power at least gives staff one less area to worry about.

How that change came to pass, and who was responsible and why, are unclear.

On March 24, the House Committee on Governmental Affairs took up Senate Bill 168. The bill made minor changes to the law governing electronic filing of campaign finance reports. It had already passed the Senate.

But in the House committee, it got changed. House members attached an amendment stripping the commission of its ability to write and enforce rules.

In an unusual move, former lawmaker Barry Fleming presented the Senate bill, and the changes, to the House committee. Fleming was serving as an attorney for House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram).

The bill was approved by legislators and sent to Gov. Sonny Perdue, who signed it into law in May.

Because Fleming was working for Richardson, was the speaker responsible for the changes to the Ethics Commission’s authority? Richardson’s spokesman, Marshall Guest, would only say that the speaker supported the bill. Richardson does not speak directly to reporters.

Three people with direct knowledge of the situation, including two Republican lawmakers, said legislators targeted the commission’s rule-making because they were angry over a commission edict that officials and candidates must disclose private air flights that they don’t pay for.

Still, Thompson remains confident that the commission remains in a better place than it was when he arrived.

“We’ve opened up the Dome on this thing and let the light shine in.”