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Commentary: Ethics reforms that don’t include punishment erode confidence

POSTED: July 3, 2011 12:30 a.m.
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Todd Rehm

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I was speaking to a member of the General Assembly last year in the wake of a series of ethics scandals that led to the former Speaker of the House resigning, and he said, "we've passed an ethics bill that greatly expands the disclosure of campaign finance and lobbyist spending."

I asked him what section of the new bill would prevent the lobbyist scandals that rocked the Gold Dome. He didn't have an answer.

I understood that what Capitol insiders mean when they say "ethics" is completely different from what lay people mean by the same word.

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Culture defines ethics as "the branch of philosophy that deals with morality. Ethics is concerned with distinguishing between good and evil in the world, between right and wrong human actions, and between virtuous and nonvirtuous characteristics of people."

As unwieldy as the name "Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission" is, it is more accurate than its former moniker, "State Ethics Commission," because the Georgia Ethics in Government Act never undertook to regulate what most laypeople think of as ethics.

When citizens think of ethics in government — after they finish laughing at the notion — they may think of a former speaker who allegedly slept with a lobbyist at the same time he sponsored legislation that favored the lobbyists client, or they may think of a legislator threatening a state university after his girlfriend was fired as their lobbyist, or they may even think of Weiner pictures on Twitter. Or that ethics laws should prevent county commissioners from receiving kickbacks in exchange for favorable zoning decisions.

But not a single section of the Ethics in Government Act addresses any of these issues.

A better statement of what most people would consider ethical conduct is found in §45-10-1, the "Code of Ethics for Government Service."

Any person in government service should:

I. Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or government department.

II. Uphold the Constitution, laws, and legal regulations of the United States and the State of Georgia and of all governments therein and never be a party to their evasion.

III. Give a full day's labor for a full day's pay and give to the performance of his duties his earnest effort and best thought.

IV. Seek to find and employ more efficient and economical ways of getting tasks accomplished.

V. Never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not, and never accept, for himself or his family, favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of his governmental duties.

VI. Make no private promises of any kind binding upon the duties of office, since a government employee has no private word which can be binding on public duty.

VII. Engage in no business with the government, either directly or indirectly, which is inconsistent with the conscientious performance of his governmental duties.

VIII. Never use any information coming to him confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means for making private profit.

IX. Expose corruption wherever discovered.

X. Uphold these principles, ever conscious that public office is a public trust.

That this ethics code and the "Ethics in Government Act" cover different subject matter is shown by the Ethics Code's inclusion in Title 45 of the Georgia Code, while the Ethics in Government Act lives in Title 21.

In yet another code title, bribery and other abuses of the public trust are dealt with as criminal offenses, and as such, responsibility for enforcement lies with our District Attorneys. Various sections attempt to prevent or to punish conflicts of interest.

The problem here is twofold. First, when the public sees the General Assembly trumpeting "ethics reform" but no prosecutions of well-publicized potential crimes, citizen confidence is eroded. Second, whether we are discussing criminal prosecutions or timely filing of campaign disclosures, enforcement is left to elected officials or state employees whose purse strings are held by elected officials.

Proposals have been made to create a statewide grand jury system to investigate complaints of campaign disclosure violations. Perhaps we should consider broadening this to also cover alleged cases of public corruption.

Todd Rehm is a Republican political consultant from Atlanta.



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