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Shipp: Foxes guard state’s ethics henhouse

POSTED: April 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.

An ethics class for lobbyists? Why didn't I think of that? Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, and several of his colleagues have dreamed up a swell idea during this election year. They would teach a formal ethics course to lobbyists. No, they didn't say anything about delivering ethics lectures to legislators, too.

I know a good-looking blonde who used to work for the gas company who would be perfect as an ethics trainer. She was once so close to Speaker Glenn Richardson that a Democrat filed an ethics complaint for "improper conduct." Overnight, Glenn became known in certain quarters as "Romeo."

Seems the lobbyist in question was interested in legislative approval of hundreds of millions in taxpayers' funds to build a pipeline for her employer.

Sen. Johnson, who happens to chair the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, dismissed without a murmur the ethics complaint against Richardson.

That was last year. Now Eric apparently has seen the light. He's suddenly interested in ethics in government and wants to teach lobbyists how to behave in the presence of elected officials.

Of course, the new ethics course hasn't been adopted yet, so the people's business is proceeding as usual.

If history serves as a guide, a gaggle of Georgia legislators took a trip last weekend to watch the Daytona 500 on the lobbyists' dime. The first weekend of February saw a dozen or so lawmakers head into the Arizona desert to enjoy the Super Bowl live and in person. Guess who picked up the tab?

The public won't know for months the identities of those legislators who enjoyed such exclusive opportunities or which special-interest lobbyists footed the bill. Even so, the public will only know then if the involved parties decide to follow the state's ever-so-lenient disclosure laws. Ask any lawmaker, and he or she will tell you they are not influenced in the slightest by joy rides, good seats and warm camaraderie.

Still, you have to hand it to Johnson as he proclaims yet another new day of ethics legislation. The good senator says he is torn about whether lobbyists should be allowed to pick up luncheon tabs while the General Assembly is in session. After all, assembly members already receive a taxpayer-funded per diem to cover the expense of food.

Johnson's public chin-stroking on ethics is particularly intriguing. From 2005 through '07, Johnson enjoyed more than $11,000 worth of perks from lobbyists, according to state disclosure reports.
The arm-twisters know Eric is a devoted football fan. They gave the Savannah senator tickets to see the Falcons, the SEC championship and two tickets to the Sugar Bowl. He has gone to a hockey game, compliments of a collaborative group of special interests including the Georgia Oilmen's Association, auto dealers, and your friendly gas company, SCANA. The big-time subprime lender, Ameriquest, gave Johnson the chance to see the Rolling Stones on a recent concert tour.

Perhaps Johnson's favorite gift came on Valentine's Day 2007. He received a collection of expensive chocolates from Porsche and the Intercontinental Hotel Group. As he opened the exquisite container, Eric must have recalled the words of the famous American ethicist, Forrest Gump: "Momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.'"

Don't worry. Eric has obviously been getting good.

We are concerned today about what our legislators' constituents may think of an ethics course for lobbyists. Some wags may gripe that this newfound interest in public morality comes from the same crowd that refused to limit lobbyist gifts to $50 in 2005.

Given the history of the current Georgia government on ethics, we believe lawmakers should appoint an outside czar to make certain the ethics course contains worthwhile material. Every student-lobbyist should be furnished a list of preferred restaurants for legislators. Ideas to give receptions that "special something" should be discussed.

Last year's closing legislative reception, financed by the Gold Dome's grateful "government relations" corps, was highlighted by one lobbyist whacking another in the head with a broken beer bottle. Such conduct should be high on any list of "don'ts."

This ethics course, presumably to be financed by taxpayers, should contain beneficial information for all parties. A complete schedule of sporting events will not doubt be required reading.

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Feb.20, 2008.



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