Lesser ethics bill gets committee approval

The Senate Ethics Committee unanimously approved Tuesday the lesser of two noteworthy ethics bills this legislative session.

Members, however, made minor changes to House Bill 310, which would send the bill back to the House if the Senate approves it.

HB 310 would allow candidates to use their campaign funds to pay legal fees and also allow the state ethics commission to send notices to late filers using more than just certified mail.

It would make clear that attorneys’ fees are a normal and acceptable expense for campaigns. Gov. Nathan Deal was accused of violating state ethics laws by using state campaign funds to pay legal fees related to a federal ethics investigation while he was running for governor in 2009 and 2010.

Holly LaBerge, executive director of the state ethics commission, said Tuesday that the proposed change came directly from that experience. The commission last year voted 3-1 to dismiss the complaint, and HB 310 would change state law to reflect the commission’s decision.

The bill would also allow the ethics commission to send notices to late filers in the same way the late report was filed. Current law requires the commission to send certified letters through the mail for every late report at a cost of more than $5 each.

The change is expected to be “quite a savings,” said the bill’s sponsor, House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs.

HB 310 would allow the commission to send those late notices electronically if the late report was filed electronically.

The commission requested the changes.

The Senate Rules Committee has yet to take up the bigger of the two noteworthy ethics bills. House Bill 142 would generally ban lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers, although it has a number of loopholes and would also force volunteer advocates to register just like high-powered paid lobbyists. Senate leaders especially do not like the registration requirement and will likely work to change it.