Watchdog needs teeth

In its effort to dispel allegations that it operates through secret backroom arrangements and deal-making, the five-member state ethics commission has apparently resorted to, well, secret backroom arrangements and deal-making.

In an emergency meeting late last month, the commission had voted to request a special assistant attorney general to investigate charges that an ethics case had been “fixed” on behalf of Gov. Nathan Deal, and that top commission staff people had been stripped of their jobs for refusing to go along. This week, the commission suddenly reversed that decision, without any public meeting, vote or discussion.

Suddenly, almost by magic, the promised investigation into what happened in the Deal case has become a mere audit of the commission’s structure and employee performance. Conceivably, there might be legitimate reasons, including ongoing lawsuits, why that change of course was necessary, but because the decision was made behind closed doors, in secret discussions among the various players, the public didn’t get to hear them.

And this time, Deal’s office wanted it known that it had nothing to do with the commission’s decision. As Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman, colorfully put it:

“We have not talked on the phone, we have not met with nor have we sent an email, a letter, a text, a direct Twitter message, a wink, a smoke signal or any other form of communication to anyone involved in this decision. This has nothing to do with the governor’s office.”

Good. But that doesn’t solve the basic problem. If the system worked as it should, if the state ethics commission operated independently, free of political pressure from those it is supposed to oversee, such reassurances would not be necessary. But history tells us that isn’t the case.

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, as it is formally known, was never designed or intended to work. It was intended to have the appearance of independence with no real independence; it was intended to look like a watchdog without having actual watchdog teeth. In fact, when state legislators stripped the agency of its previous official title as the Georgia Ethics Commission a few years ago, they did so for a reason: They do not want an outside agency sitting in judgment of their ethics.

Over the years, through both Democratic and Republican control, the people who run this state have forced out top commission staff people who dared to show some backbone in enforcing the law, or who were perceived as advocating even the slightest tightening of ethics oversight. When the commission has issued rulings that displeased political leaders, — for example, by ruling that legislators had to report free flights on corporate jets — it has been punished with the loss of funding, the loss of authority, or both.

It’s time to blow the thing up. An ethics commission appointed by powerful state leaders is not designed to be independent. Appoint them by judges instead. A commission staff whose salaries and resources depend on the benevolence of state legislators is not designed to be independent. Give the commission a guaranteed amount of funding instead.

Bills to accomplish both goals have already been written and introduced by reformers in the two parties. Pass them, and we’ll have the independent oversight that the public demands and that the political class wants badly to avoid.

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