Lobbyists outside of a Gold Dome House Appropriations Committee meeting in Nov. 2018 during a special session of the Georgia Legislature. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Keeping our watchdog’s light on gov’t.

Last week, we published a story that highlighted a bill passed by the Georgia Senate that would make it much harder to know how money influences lawmakers.

Thanks to the work of James Salzer, one of the AJC’s journalists who reports on the state’s government, we learned the following:

“The legislation, Senate Bill 213, would eliminate the disclosure state officials and lawmakers have to make around Jan. 31 each year that shows contributions in the days leading up to the start of the session.

Those contributions would instead be reported in July in non-election years, such as 2019. So if an industry contributed $100,000 to lawmakers and top state officials or their PACs the day before the session, and then won approval for a multimillion-dollar tax break, the public wouldn’t know until after the governor signed it into law.”

Salzer, who’s covered the Gold Dome for decades, pointed out that state officials, their political parties and organizations that support their campaigns raked in about $1.5 million during the two weeks before this year’s legislative session started — in some cases the checks came in less than 24 hours before the gavel fell to start the session. Lobbyists cannot donate to lawmakers during the session, so there’s a last-minute surge before the session opens.

Under this proposed bill, you wouldn’t know the results of that surge that for months.

The timing for this proposal got my attention. The bill was passed by the Senate during Sunshine Week, a time when the American Society of News Editors and journalists work to emphasize how important open government is to our democracy.

The AJC not only advocates on behalf of its readers and its subscribers for open government, we depend on good open government laws to bring you important stories. Often, what seems like a routine story is built on a foundation of open records and government documents.

It’s also important to note that as a media organization, we don’t enjoy special access to such information or public records. As a citizen, you have the same right to that information, because the government works for you — you fund it with your tax dollars.

But there are those who work to keep information hidden, and they often count on the trouble and expense it takes to ferret it out. That’s where we come in, to do our job finding the real story for you.

We often have citizens who call us for help, or suggest a story. Public records can be the way to dig it out.

How do we do that? Here are some recent examples:

  • Our journalists examined sexual harassment in state agencies. Early on, they learned that no single state agency was tracking or investigating sexual harassment across state government departments. To understand the issue, our Jennifer Peebles sought records from some 30 state departments, agencies and commissions. After months of negotiations and paying more than $6,000 in fees, the AJC obtained thousands of pages of documents. They showed that Georgia has a haphazard system that stacked the deck against those who report harassment. The result: Gov. Brian Kemp issued a new policy to change the state’s practices.
  • The city of Atlanta kept the public in the dark about its pension fund’s financial performance, ignoring promised reforms for disclosure and other decisions it was making. For that story, AJC reporter Yamil Berard had to wait months to get some basic information such as agendas and minutes for pension board meetings, even though a 2017 ordinance required that basic pension documents be posted online.
  • Journalist Alan Judd revealed about 35 suicides among people under the care of community health providers. That story revealed that serious errors by the community health providers were involved in two-thirds of those deaths, but regulators provided no fines or other sanctions. The suicides, as well as the state’s muted response, illustrate how Georgia continues to fall short of its promised overhaul of a mental health system long plagued by substandard care, abuse, neglect and unnecessary deaths. His story was based on records he obtained from the state.
  • Corruption issues that plagued DeKalb County in the past were often associated with purchasing and contracting. An outside audit finalized in January and obtained by the AJC’s Tia Mitchell said that although no recent issues were discovered, a lack of a purchasing ordinance and policies leaves the county vulnerable still. The Board of Commissioners and CEO Michael Thurmond disagree on how to move forward in implementing new purchasing laws, which allows those vulnerabilities to continue indefinitely.
  • A family contacted the AJC’s Meris Lutz because Reginald Wilson had died in the Cobb County jail. Lutz proceeded to find out what she could, and the family told her that he suffered from schizophrenia. Lutz then requested a police department incident report to get more information about the circumstances of his arrest. She found out that officers responded to a call and found Wilson wandering in the road outside WellStar Cobb Hospital, wearing scrubs and no shoes. Officers took Wilson back to the hospital, which had recently discharged him. When they discovered that he had an active warrant for violating his probation in a previous case, they arrested him and brought him to the Cobb jail once he was cleared by doctors for release. An autopsy was performed by the Cobb Medical Examiner, but the cause and manner of death are pending toxicology results. Just this week, Lutz reported on another unexplained jail death. It’s important to know that the county doesn’t publicize when someone dies in jail; Lutz had to make a request to get that information.

It isn’t yet clear whether the bill abut political donations will pass; modifications are being considered. We’ll be monitoring and cover the next steps.

In the meantime, we’re busy pursuing more public records each day, so that we can report important stories for you.

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