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Our Views: Another ethics dodge in the Gold Dome

Caucus loophole lets lawmakers avoid gift limits as commission sits idly by

POSTED: March 16, 2014 1:00 a.m.

As the 2014 Georgia General Assembly winds down this week and a slate of new laws assessed, it’s clear one apparent success from last year’s session hasn’t panned out as many hoped.

That was the long overdue limit on gifts, meals and other goodies lawmakers could accept in exchange for letting lobbyists bend their ears, which is supposed to be part of the job with or without the freebies.

The rule passed last year caps the amount a lobbyist can spend on a single legislator at $75, enough to cover a nice dinner and a decent bottle of wine. But it left a loophole behind they could drive a truck through: waiving the limit if a lobbying group entertains a full caucus instead of a lone lawmaker. So our intrepid public servants piled into a handful of new trucks — in the form of ad hoc caucuses — and hit the gas.

Though many caucuses have existed for years and are legitimate, the state Senate conjured up 16 new ones of varying sizes and interests. Now if three senators wear the same color of tie on a given day, they can call themselves a caucus and get in line at the buffet.

Even worse, lobbyists in this case don’t have to list the individuals being served, making it harder for constituents to keep tabs on who is courting their representatives.

The House hasn’t been as generous, creating only three new recognized caucuses upon which lobbyists can lavish gifts. But there’s nothing stopping either chamber at this point since the rules governing what qualifies as a caucus have yet to be written.

That leads back to another problem in ethics enforcement: The agency tasked to do so is a joke.

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission supposedly is drawing up rules to address the lobbyist-caucus connection. It has not yet done so even as the session wanes and lawmakers pile their plates as high as they did before.

This caucus escape hatch is just one problem the commission faces. Its leaders recently revealed they have yet to resolve some 169 open cases still under investigation. In fact, the only action the commission has taken in recent months was to dismiss complaints against two insurance companies accused of shady financing in John Oxendine’s 2010 bid for governor. They weren’t dismissed because the claims were invalid, only because the commission’s staff had made no progress investigating them.

The head of the commission, Holly LaBerge, blames the backlog on the dismissal of staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein for allegedly showing up for work intoxicated, a claim her lawyer denies. She and LaBerge remain in the middle of a whistleblower case that involves three other people and stems from the ethics charges filed against now-Gov. Nathan Deal during his 2010 campaign.

Six years ago, the agency handled 116 cases and took in $195,000 in fines, the Atlanta newspapers reported. Three years and several budget cuts later, that was down to 15 cases and $10,080 in fines.

Thus, the agency assigned to police ethical behavior in state government, in addition to facing its own ethical problems, has done nothing to define or enforce the rules.

Meanwhile, state officials still insist Georgians should simply trust them to do the right thing, and that no lobbyist’s gift is going to influence how they vote.

Even if that were true in 99 cases of 100 — and we’re being generous to suggest such — that 100th case is enough to justify rules that are clear and strictly enforced. It’s as if lawmakers are free to ignore highway speed limit signs because there are no patrol cars to pull them over. And because they assure us they’re good drivers, we shouldn’t worry, right?

At least the new rules have curtailed the more excessive expenses: luxury trips, golf junkets and tickets to sporting events. Those have been the biggest perks lobbyists have showered on lawmakers, who would then justify them as “fact finding” trips — because, of course, important decisions involving higher education can only be made at college football games that regular folks have to buy tickets to attend.

Yet the new law leaves too much wiggle room elsewhere, and lawmakers already have wiggled past it with their caucus-making craze. Tighter limits are needed and penalties imposed for those who step over the line. But what are the odds of that happening if the very people the laws target are also those who must approve them?

That also explains the lack of power, staffing and funds for an ethics commission that apparently is overwhelmed by cases because one lawyer is absent. Not only are the foxes allowed to watch the henhouse, they get to put up the fences around it and tell the farmer how much he can spend to deter them.

But don’t look for this issue to get much attention during this year’s election campaign. Even in the few areas with contested seats — not one lawmaker in Hall County faces an opponent, either in the primary or fall general election — it’s unlikely to get any traction.

Those in office seem in no hurry to ramp up rules aimed at them, and without the public’s outcry for change, the status quo will continue and the few complaints that are filed will never see the light of day.

Georgians deserve better. The majority of public officials are honorable people who abide by the rules; most violations, in fact, can be attributed to oversight and not sinister motives. Yet we still need open, transparent and ethical halls of government staffed by public servants hired to work for the people, not for themselves.

Putting them on the honor system with no way to make the rules stick is an ongoing black eye for our state.


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