Money plays central role in scandals

It’s not just scandals or controversy at the state level that keeps our ethics watchdog group busy. By far, most phone calls and emails we receive with cries for help are from citizens about local governments. And those calls are not just from the metro Atlanta area; they come from all corners of the state.

Be it a conflict of interest, rumors of special favors or accusations of outright bribery, most complaints we receive have to do with the role of money in politics. Whether controversial actions are legal due to weak laws or blatantly illegal, money always plays a part, if not the central role, in scandals. That’s why we need laws or ordinances restricting the influence of money in politics, as well as greater oversight of the spending of taxpayer dollars.

Even the most optimistic of us know that is a tall order. While I believe 99 percent of our elected officials are honest, there are very few willing to stand up and question the spending habits of colleagues or pro-actively introduce legislation to tighten controls.

In the midst of the pay-to-play trial of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, the prison time being served by former Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lassiter for accepting bribes, and the absurd payouts of sick leave and vacation time to top administrators by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, there are a handful of heroes willing to stand up and push back.

Atlanta Council Member Felicia Moore was the lone voice challenging the appropriateness and legality of payouts to top officials in Reed’s administration. Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell attempted to limit the influence of campaign contributions from current contractors and those seeking contracts with the county by introducing a strong pay-to-play ordinance. Fayette County Commission Chair Steve Brown has led a voluntary but strong lobbyist meal and gift ban for that body.

And one example that deserves further explanation is DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader and his push for a county auditor.

Last year, Rader introduced legislation to expedite the hiring of an auditor. Certainly, the accusations against Ellis warranted hiring one sooner rather than later. Rader’s legislation was opposed by a commission majority led by Elaine Boyer and Sharon Barnes-Sutton.

With Boyer recently resigning from office in disgrace after admitting to the FBI that she committed wire and mail fraud related to her expense account, to the tune of $93,000, and with Barnes-Sutton being accused of $34,000 in payments from her office budget to her boyfriend for “political consulting,” we can conclude their opposition was likely guided by their own actions.

In a state that ranks 50th in the nation on the strength of our ethics laws, and with these and other scandals across the state, it would seem easy to find more elected officials who stand tall like the good examples listed above. Unfortunately, most leaders we elect in this state, while honest, do not take on issues that those in power or who abuse the system refer to as “do-gooder” legislation. We suffer from a real lack of public officials with enough intestinal fortitude to step up and say that they and their colleagues need greater oversight and stricter controls.

Common Cause Georgia will keep pushing for legislation to require local governments to limit the temptation of money in politics that lead to abuse and corruption. We will continue to highlight, applaud and support the efforts of those at the local level who stand up for what is needed. But our best hope is for the people of our great state to demand more policing of themselves from our elected leaders at the state level and, crucially, in local government. We deserve better.

William Perry is executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

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