The Georgia Senate is moving to keep taxpayers from having to pay public officials who are suspended from their jobs while facing felony indictments.
Senate Bill 218 and Senate Resolution 134, sponsored by Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, were filed a few weeks after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that by June 30, the state will have paid about $400,000 in salary and benefits to suspended Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck.
Beck was indicted a few months after taking office on charges alleging that he swindled his former employer out of $2 million, in part to fund his campaign for office.
Both measures passed the Senate Government Oversight Committee on Tuesday and will next head to the Senate floor.
“I feel like we are charged as elected officials and state senators to be good stewards with the taxpayers’ dollars,” Walker told a Senate committee Tuesday. “They are no longer doing (their jobs), I don’t think they should continue being paid.”
Wes Burleson of the state insurance commissioner’s office told the panel that as of now, Beck has been paid $343,000 since he was suspended in mid-May 2019.
“To put that in perspective, we could have used those funds to hire building inspectors, who make $41,000 a year starting (salary), insurance fraud investigators at $46,000, or fire arson inspectors at $52,000.
“So we strongly support this legislation.”
SB 218 would deal with local officials, such as district attorneys. Paulding County District Attorney Dick Donovan was recently indicted on charges of bribery, violation of oath by public officer, and two counts of false swearing. The allegations stem from his relationship with a top female staff member. He has denied the charges. Gov. Brian Kemp suspended him from his office.
SR 134 relates to state officials and would have to be approved by voters in 2022 as a constitutional amendment. It would apply to officials who are indicted on charges related to their performance in office.
Indicted officials who are exonerated would return to their jobs and receive back pay.
Even if SR 134 passes, it would have no impact on Beck’s case. Beck is expected to go to trial this year on his charges, which involve activity before he took office. Plus, the law would apply to future cases.
Beck was indicted in May 2019, five months after taking office, and suspended by Kemp.
Since he didn’t resign but was suspended, the state is paying two insurance commissioners: Beck and Kemp’s choice to replace him, John King.
Then-House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, filed legislation in 2019 to do away with pay for indicted officials, but his bill went nowhere during the 2020 session.
Trammell, who lost his re-election bid last year, said on Twitter Tuesday, “Glad to see this measure moving forward. It’s just good policy to correct this flaw in the law.”
Beck won election in November 2018 and took office the next January. By May, then-U.S. Attorney BJay Pak was announcing the indictment of Beck, a former leader of the Georgia Christian Coalition, alleging that he stole money to pay personal credit card bills and taxes, and pump money into his 2018 campaign for insurance commissioner.
Three former Department of Insurance employees later sued the state and Beck, saying they were ousted as retaliation because he thought they provided information about him to state and federal officials and the media.
The insurance commissioner’s job will be back on the ballot in 2022. If Beck is cleared of the criminal charges, he is entitled to take back the post and stand for reelection. In the meantime, the state will continue paying two commissioners.