Ethics plays a part in Georgia governor’s race

Transparency and ethics in Georgia’s state government are again emerging as key factors in the heated race for governor as top candidates make their final arguments to voters.

Gov. Nathan Deal has tried to neutralize the ethics questions swirling around his first term by advocating for a vast overhaul of the state watchdog agency at the center of the controversy. His challengers, Democrat Jason Carter and Libertarian Andrew Hunt, claim they’ll bring more commitment to clean government.

As the drip-drip of ethics developments dribbled out over the summer, Deal sought to distance himself from the saga while Carter held press conferences alleging a “cover-up.” Yet both candidates have focused more on their education and economic platforms, with polls showing those issues factor more prominently in voters’ minds.

Still, the vows for more transparency form a central part of their campaign pledges. It’s at the core of one of Deal’s most definitive campaign vows, one that would require him to spend considerable political capital should he win. And Carter, who promises his own ethics shake-up, has committed to new measures designed to hold the office more accountable.

An ‘inherently bad’ ethics agency?

The ethics questions dogging Deal are rooted in his last campaign for governor, when he was slapped with complaints that claimed he improperly paid for the use of private aircraft and questioned his use of campaign funds to pay legal fees. Ethics commissioners ultimately voted to dismiss the major complaints but ordered Deal to pay $3,350 in fees for technical defects.

The repercussions of that agreement linger still. Former ethics commission employees claimed in whistleblower cases that the then-head of the ethics agency, Holly LaBerge, bragged she was doing the governor a favor with her handling of the case. The state paid more than $3 million to settle those cases.

Another bombshell surfaced in July when LaBerge revealed a memo saying she felt threatened by Deal’s aides to make the complaints against him “go away.” Deal, who defended his staffers, said they were trying to find out how an upcoming meeting on the ethics complaints against him was going to be handled.

Meanwhile, federal investigators subpoenaed at least five current and former ethics staffers in December 2013, though the scope of their inquiry is unclear. The FBI and federal prosecutors have declined to comment.

Carter has tried to turn the ethics questions into a pocketbook argument, telling crowds that “a little bit of what we did this week as taxpayers is going to pay for a cover-up.” Hunt’s pitch for an ethics overhaul is also an economic one: He says government should create a more level playing field to give smaller firms a better shot at tax breaks and incentives.

The issue came to the fore at a recent debate, where Deal said the complaints against him were meritless, and he blamed an “inherently bad” ethics agency for the problems.

“The truth of the matter is we did not interfere,” he said at the debate. “If we had, we would have been indicted by somebody. We were never called as a witness. … We were never asked for testimony.”

Carter, in that exchange, pronounced himself “amazed” at the governor’s response.

“Let me just say this: Imagine a world where the governor of Georgia does not come on the radio and talk about an ethics scandal,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Carter has also pressed a new line of attack, with TV ads criticizing the governor’s 2013 sale of a salvage yard he co-owned to a Texas-based firm called Copart that’s locked in a dispute with the state over as much as $74 million in back taxes.

Deal, who said he wants an independent jurist to settle that dispute, claims the critiques are mere pandering from a “liberal” who is betraying a deep-seated mistrust for private enterprise.

‘Probably overdue’ changes

Deal’s answer to the ongoing questions is an expanded ethics agency with more resources and a new setup designed to have fewer conflicts of interest. He proposes replacing the five-member panel with 12 appointees, four from each branch of the the government, who would tap a 13th person as the group’s chairman.

The governor, who conceded that the proposal is “probably overdue,” said the expanded structure would help the agency more quickly resolve complaints. The agency for months had failed to dispose of any cases, though new hires have helped the agency more recently jump-start its work.

Deal has suggested he would more narrowly define who can file whistleblower complaints, citing a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that seemingly cleared the way for more complaints. He said he’s worried that it automatically granted state employees charged with conducting investigations with “whistleblower” protections if they bring a lawsuit.

And he has pointed to an ethics complaint filed by John Douglas, a former Republican lawmaker, who claimed an event boosting Carter was “illegal.” The complaint was promptly dismissed by the ethics agency, leading Douglas to question what he calls an “amazing improvement in efficiency” by the troubled organization.

Carter, too, pledges to overhaul the agency, and in hopes of making it more independent, he vouched for a plan to tie the agency’s funding to a fixed percentage of the state budget so lawmakers and the governor’s office have less influence.

He also went a step further and promised to reveal campaign contributions and conflicts of interest of each person he appoints to a state board if he’s elected. The pledge, which Deal called a “silly” political stunt, takes aim at the well-connected elite who have filled elite boards for decades — including the administration of his grandfather, Jimmy Carter.

“Just because it has been done that way in the past,” Jason Carter said, “doesn’t make it right.”

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