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Shipp: DOT and the ‘dirty white hat’ syndrome

POSTED: May 7, 2008 5:01 a.m.

As former state Attorney General Mike Bowers used to say, "Dirt shows up more on a white hat."
State Transportation Commissioner Gena Abraham and those who have placed their own credibility on the line by backing her may soon be schooled in this hard-to-remember Bowers lesson:
"If you're going to set yourself up as the champion of ethics and reform, you had better make sure you are actually cleaner than those you are policing."

In a split vote, the DOT board has spared Abraham from firing from one of the most powerful jobs in state government. However, she also has received a mild reprimand for failing to report in a timely manner that she was being pursued romantically by transportation board chairman Mike Evans.

After resigning his post, Evans told fellow board members that his budding relationship with Abraham had not yet violated department policy prohibiting sexual activity between coworkers. He said he was leaving the DOT to avoid violating those sacrosanct rules.

Then vice chairman Garland Pinholster, 78, succeeded Evans as chairman. But "The Old Coach," as onetime basketball star coach Pinholster is known, discovered immediately that he had ill health and resigned as fresh rumors of sexual harassment surfaced against him.

A day later, Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle came out guns blazing in defense of Abraham, both offering a vote of confidence in her ability to lead the troubled department. Perdue noted that Abraham has upset various DOT constituencies, including legislators and local elected officials, since taking office last year. The governor essentially blamed political enemies of Abraham (and himself) for the predicament in which Abraham finds herself.

That ought to be the end of it, except that Abraham decided to lay down the law to her subordinates, in writing, just before news of her own possible indiscretion broke. She warned that sexual dalliances could lead to serious punishment, even firing. An accusatory memorandum on March 31 stresses that Commissioner Abraham will not abide violations of employee conduct rules.

She has even pledged to remove politics -- I can't wait -- from the transportation department, though she and Evans were recently seen together at a Republican event.

The fact that Perdue has made Abraham the embodiment of his claim that he is attempting to clean up the DOT, and her no-tolerance line for misconduct may mean trouble for her. Those actions amount to an engraved invitation to view her own personal conduct under a public microscope. For her sake (and the governor's), the timeline that she and Evans are claiming about their relationship had better be the ironclad truth.

Nothing gets a press corps moving faster than the chance to show hypocrisy by people who hold themselves out as entitled to judge the morality of others.

Investigative journalists are already pursuing reports that the use of state aircraft and funds may be involved in the Evans-Abraham saga.

This sudden burst of energy by the fourth estate is being gleefully fueled by enemies of Abraham and Perdue. Those foes include DOT employees offended by her confrontational management style and legislators (including House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram) still smarting from their defeat in the battle over hiring a new transpiration commissioner last year.

Remember? Abraham, with Perdue's backing, eked out a win over state Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, by a 7-6 vote of the transportation board.

Speaker Richardson was Smith's principal backer, and Richardson went so far as to attempt to have Evans voted off the board earlier this year. The speaker failed at that project, but considering his temper and tenacity, there is no reason to believe he has stopped working to even the score.

As Bowers found out a decade ago when he mounted a campaign for governor, it is difficult for someone who publicly polices the conduct of others to survive getting caught engaging in misconduct. Bowers built a sterling reputation as a reform-minded attorney general and champion of morality. He even gained national fame for pushing tough enforcement of Georgia's sexual morality laws. His chance to become governor blew up when he had to admit a long-running extramarital affair.

This year, we saw former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer turn from a man on the fast track with a spot on a future national Democratic ticket to disgrace after he was caught patronizing the type of prostitution ring he had busted as state attorney general.

The Bowers and Spitzer tales should serve as a warning to Abraham and Perdue. If she gets caught having misled the public about her relationship with Evans, she's through, and Sonny takes a big hit.
The governor's popularity has survived other hypocrisy charges, including seeing his claim to be an ethics reformer dented by becoming the first sitting governor fined by the state Ethics Commission. He also established the first state inspector general's office to rein in improper conduct. The IG's office spent most of its time justifying Perdue's conduct, and then sort of faded from view amid rumors of -- guess what? -- sexual misconduct.

In the Abraham matter, Perdue is way out on a limb. For the moment, the heartrending story of Our Gal Gena has diverted attention from unprecedented waste and mismanagement in Perdue's transportation department.

However, the hint of hanky-panky is likely to rouse public attention and curiosity more than any set of cooked books ever could, even if the cooking amounted to a billion-dollar loss to taxpayers.

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can contact him at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30160; or visit his Web site.



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